When Edward Snowden blew the whistle on the National Security Agency last summer, revealing that the agency had spied on millions of people online, Internet privacy advocates and security experts were concerned. If the U.S. government was able to engage in a large scale surveillance program without anyone noticing, who else is watching average Americans and businesses as they go about their normal activities?
In the wake of the surveillance allegations, a number of organizations, including technology companies, privacy advocates, civil liberties groups, websites and security firms are calling for better protections against unauthorized snooping. The centerpiece of their campaign is the “Reset the Net” campaign, which calls upon websites to deploy more effective security and privacy measures designed to keep online activity safe from surveillance — both from government agencies and cybercriminals.
While no one wants to allow risks to national security to go unchecked, many people are concerned that weaknesses in the current privacy and security controls on the Internet foster an environment in which individuals have limited privacy. It’s important to note that while government agencies were able to collect personal data simply by tapping into the unprotected networks, they need a court order — which must be precipitated by reasonable suspicion of wrongdoing — in order to review the information.
Still, many people bristle at the notion that someone is keeping tabs on their Netflix viewing habits or how long they play Candy Crush. Not to mention, cyber criminals do not adhere to restrictions regarding data collection — after all, they are usually accessing it illegally in the first place. This makes the call for increased privacy enhancements a matter of interest to everyone.
Protecting Your Privacy
While the “Reset the Net” campaign is focused largely on websites and service providers, there are steps that individuals can take as well to protect themselves from snooping and spying. Given that most people share sensitive data online every day, such as when they bank online, it’s important to take steps to protect your privacy and secure data.
To that end, privacy experts recommend taking the following steps:
Encrypting Data. Encryption is one of the most effective ways to protect your information from snoops. In fact, several major email services, including Google’s Gmail and Yahoo Mail have recently announced that they will begin using data encryption to secure messages sent and stored on their servers. Businesses and individuals alike can install encryption solutions on their computers to encode data both at rest and in transit, essentially rendering it useless to anyone who accesses it without the proper credentials.
Use Virtual Private Networks. Many businesses that allow BYOD have developed VPN’s to prevent employees from accessing corporate networks via public Wi-Fi or other unsecured connections. Individuals who do not have access to a VPN via their employer, or want to be able to check their email or bank balance securely using their smartphone or laptop in a coffee shop can download applications that create individual VPNs for increased privacy. A VPN won’t make you completely anonymous online, but it will block the hacker sitting at the next table over from eavesdropping on your online session.
Use HTTPS. Anyone who shops online should be familiar with HTTPS: When the S is added to the end of the “HTTP” in a web address, it indicates a secure connection. If the S doesn’t appear, anyone can spy on what you are doing. Consider installing a plugin that will ensure that any time you visit a site that has HTTPS capability, it’s launched.
Use Airplane Mode. If you’re doing something on your smartphone or tablet that doesn’t require an open Internet connection, switch the device into airplane mode. You will still be able to play games or watch downloaded videos — or even draft emails or text messages — but no one will be able to spy on your activities. When you can securely connect the device to a Wi-Fi network, then return it to normal mode and send your messages or update social media.
Some argue that the only way to maintain complete privacy is to ditch the smartphone and stay off t he computer. While that may be true, it’s certainly not practical for most people. It is possible to protect yourself from people who want to capture your information or see what you’re doing online without permission, so spend some time pulling down the proverbial shades. Even if you have nothing to hide, there’s a good chance someone is interested in what you’re up to.
This Guest blog is by Erica Taylor