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There are a lot of websites that explain why privacy is important, or provide lists of alternatives - but there aren’t really any lists of concise, actionable steps that people can work through in order to improve their digital privacy and security. As such, I decided to compile these steps into a list.

What do you think is important/should be on this list?


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    I increasingly feel that as individual it’s kind of pointless to protest against systemic problems like this. Systemic problems need systemic solutions. We didn’t fix problems with CFCs, DDT, and asbestos by individuals boycotting them or choosing alternatives; we fixed it by recognizing that the current situation was not in the common good by any rational standard, and passing legislation to restrict or outlaw the harmful substances.

    Unfortunately the current political zeitgeist in both the United States and the EU is such that it’s very hard to address this. We can’t even address climate change or factory farming in any meaningful manner – topics where the vast majority of people think something should be done and where the solutions are blindingly obvious – so I have little hope on this topic.

    A lot of people are not in favour of government interventions. I’m not really, either. But for better or worse, it is the only real organisation we have to look out for the common good. Wielded correctly, it can be a great force for good. I don’t really buy the arguments that government regulations on environment, privacy, etc. automatically lead to a “nanny state”. Traffic laws are very strict, and that seems to work well enough.

    I do think that we should also think very hard about some things we don’t want governments to do, as well as how the government communicates with its citizens. In particular, laws that attempt to legislate morality are probably not a good idea, and don’t even get me started about stuff like the Windrush Scandal, where the government simply cheated its own citizens. Things like this erodes people’s patience with government, making it even harder to pass desperately needed laws on privacy and the environment.

    A lot of the current political attention is taken up by extraordinary silly events: Brexit, Donald Trump, etc. All of this further destroys faith in government. The Republicans/Conservatives don’t really care, because they were against government in the first place. By running the government in an inept way they are proving their own point. There is a very strange incentive to mess things up.
    No matter what will happen with elections in the next few years, I think that it’s still a massive win for the anti-government right-wing, as it pushed perception of the government as in inept organisation among people of all political convictions.

    This got a bit more political than I intended to; but I think it’s important, as all the time spent writing privacy tools could perhaps better be spent arguing your local legislature, or supporting a political party that opposes this kind of stuff, or … something. Honestly, I’m not entire sure how to address it. My own solution has thus far mostly been to think about it and debate it on occasion, which is interesting, but not very effective.

    To answer the question: I do the “low hanging fruit” stuff; whitelist cookies, block 3rd-party cookies outright, adblocker, etc. Anything more than that probably has diminishing returns. This is mainly aimed at the “I want all your data” internet companies. I am not so worried about the NSA to be honest.

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      You might enjoy this talk by PHK: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3jQoAYRKqhg. Tongue in cheek analysis of how we’ve gotten ourselves into this situation and that political problems require political solutions.

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        as individual it’s kind of pointless to protest against systemic problems like this

        There’s a difference between protesting again (effecting change at large) and dealing with (effecting change for yourself) systemic problems. To me the question reads like it’s about the latter.

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          I get your point, but I don’t think the two are that distinct, especially considering that preventing getting tracked is quite hard, and preventing NSA-type programs even harder.

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            I agree with you about the difficulty in preventing NSA-type programs, and I also agree that “preventing getting tracked is quite hard”. Where I differ is in the “getting tracked” part: I think an individual can greatly reduce how much they are tracked, if they wish to do so.

            To your original point: as an individual, I can greatly reduce my carbon emissions… which would be a drop in the ocean and wouldn’t improve climate change outcomes and how they affect me. Reducing my external data footprint is totally possible and improves my privacy.

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              You’re correct that the situations aren’t completely analogous. But if you look at the general (non technical) population then we see that effective tracking protection is very hard, if not almost impossible. So while we both have the knowledge, skills, time, and patience to reduce our data footprint to quite some degree, most people simply don’t.

              So now we have the options, we either go and try and educate every individual, or we take collective action to make things better for everyone. Given that the entire premise of tracking the hell out of everyone without their consent is ridiculous to start with and provides little benefit, and that educating individuals is hard and time-comsuming, it seems to me that taking collective action is the only viable course of action if we really want to change things.

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                My point was that data footprint is one area in which we can improve our own individual situation and help others we know to do the same for theirs. I agree 100% with you that the situation is terrible and that collective action would be better.

                A company like FastMail could conceivably make a tool that:

                1. Migrates from gmail to FastMail and sets up forwarding on gmail with markers on the message on FastMail to show which service providers need email address changed
                2. Bundles Firefox with a good balance between privacy and usability (Facebook container!)
                3. Bundles a VPN (I guess ProtonMail could do this too, because I think they actually offer a VPN)

                If someone made a turnkey package that gets people 80% of the way there without too much effort, that seems like a win. Obviously, people have to pay for those services. That’s one problem: it’s not clear to me how many people are willing to trade some money for privacy?

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          I feel like it’s important to tell you that no, at most it’s a bare majority of people, not vast majority, who think solutions to farming and climate change are obvious. As an example, talking from the United States, our carbon numbers are already so small that the science says even if our emissions went to zero today, it wouldn’t make a dent at all in the globe’s climate. At this point the only obvious answer is to move inland.

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            As an example, talking from the United States, our carbon numbers are already so small that the science says even if our emissions went to zero today, it wouldn’t make a dent at all in the globe’s climate

            That’s true of ~every country. Not sure what lead you to think it’s a helpful addition to the conversation.

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          Depends on how far you are willing to go I guess. At one extreme you have airgapped devices, always on VPNs, and a phone that either nevers leaves the house or is always on airplane mode. In the middle you have some sane practices like using Signal for most communication, basic use of VPNs, avoiding exposing information on social media platforms, and generally trying not to be a “data product”. At the other extreme you have “data cows” in the “data farm” that enjoy the cushy life that comes from always-on surveillance.

          Your list should probably be tiered based on who you are addressing and where their starting point is.

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            Agreed. I can come up with a thousand ideas, but which ones are useful or not will depend on your “threat model” – who exactly are you trying to protect yourself from.

            • If you’re trying to protect yourself from opportunistic hackers who don’t have a personal/vested interest in you, there’s some simple steps.
            • If you’re trying to protect yourself from someone you know and interact with on a semi-frequent basis, there’s some more steps to build on top of that.
            • If you’re trying to protect yourself from very close people, like a spouse, here’s some advanced stuff with the caveat that many people in that position take a negative view of you doing that.
            • If you’re trying to protect yourself from governments, here’s a much harder list which will dramatically impact how you use the internet and basically every computing device out there.

            And that’s just one facet of your model. There’s more details: Who you want to have access? How much do you value absolute privacy versus connecting with less paranoid people? How flexible are you in any of your positions?

            So the unfortunate thing is there isn’t any universal list of steps since there isn’t an average person – everyone will answer these and other questions differently/. Which steps each person should take depends on those answers.

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              If you’re trying to protect yourself from governments, here’s a much harder list which will dramatically impact how you use the internet and basically every computing device out there.

              That’s the old model from hacker culture. Thing is, it ignored economics: black market turned into lots of specialists cranking out more stuff at lower prices. New and old vulnerabilities are a plenty. The services people use are often insecure by default. Whether an interest or not, it doesn’t take a government’s resources to attack what lots of people use. At one point, I saw kits online for the price of a gaming rig. Expect it to get worse as they put more smart devices in their home.

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                Indeed, I simplified a bit too much. As you said, what was thought of only possible with the resources of a nation-state is now more readily available. For example, all of the NSA’s “Shadow Broker” stuff is now in the hands of many more people in the black/grey markets.

                When I originally wrote the comment, I was more thinking about BGP hijacking, Sybil attacks, and the like - but a threat model is not a static document. It changes, both because of personal changes or because market forces have changed. What is possible changes every day.

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                  Shadow Broker stuff is a great example. Forgot to mention the leaks. :)

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            The EFF’s Surveillance Self-Defense is a collection of step-by-step guides; with sections by intent like “creating strong passwords”, by tool like “use WhatsApp on Android”, by persona like “LGBTQ Youth”, and further reading like “Attending Protests in the United States”.

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              In some cases, such as browsers, security can come at the expense of privacy. Every security setting disabling a feature to decrease attack surface can likely be detected from JS, making your browser that much more fingerprint-able.

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                EFF’s Panopticlick is a good starting point for browser fingerprinting and tracking.

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                  Good point, I didn’t think of that. For that example you mentioned, do you know if there are any extensions that try to fake the feature? I know XPrivacy does something similar on Android.

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                  Browsing the web is allowing any remote computer to execute their js code onto your machine. This gives a decent access to a large amount of sensors, which might enough to identify someone even across a VPN (the window-size / user-agent / software version for instance).

                  Google and friends has a massive amount of resources dedicated to identify people online. That is how they earn their bread and butter.

                  So indeed, I guess it takes a bit more than a VPN…

                  Disabling javascript and all remote content (namely, umatrix with all off by default) ? If you just need the text it should be good. But then, you will make yourself more unique and more easily identified in the crowd. So now a VPN is needed (and effective).

                  But we now hit a core problem of the web: javascript needs to be enabled to get any content at all.

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                    1. Stop using a smartphone (switch to a dumb phone)
                    2. Stop using big corp social networks
                    3. Stop using big corp e-mail accounts
                    4. Stop using big corp browsers
                    5. Use a VPN/SOCKS server to route all your traffic through there
                    6. Stop using big corp computers and devices
                    7. Don’t speak near people carrying big corp computers and devices
                    8. Don’t speak near people running big corp apps in their computers and devices
                    9. Be happy and enjoy life
                    10. All you need is less
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                      The list should come with a disclaimer that you can do so much to protect your privacy/security but you’ll probably never going to fully achieve it.

                      If you block whatever you want but still use Facebook, they will still be tracking you.

                      Then include the usual basic everyday tooling/extensions for browsing (as most people do that):

                      • Good adblocker with updated lists
                      • Https everywhere
                      • uMatrix
                      • Goof anti-spam filter

                      Then having a decent antivirus (on Windows) is pretty helpful when downloading things from the wild (or use some online service checking through different antiviruses at once).

                      After that it all depends on your behaviour (don’t just click links, don’t download images automatically from your emails) and your country (in some countries having an-always on VPN is the norm).

                      And, if you are using a VPN, either pay for it (the more the better) or self-host it yourself.

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                        Probably the best and easiest thing I do for my privacy is installing a few browser addons, for me it’s EFF’s privacy badger.

                        It has no visible effects other than it accidentally blocks a bunch of ads too, so a net improvement over my browsing experience.

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                          uBlock Origin paired with Badger works quite well.

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                            What does Badger add that uBlock with EasyPrivacy and Fanboy’s Anti-Social List doesn’t?

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                              Badger is a good starting point for users and provides an intuitive representation of trackers through the UI. The controls for that (i.e. being able to adjust enable/disable certain things) is more entry user level friendly than say, going through all the source lists on uBlock and understanding what is blocked. I find the controls more granular so one can adjust as desired. I will admit to not having spent sufficient time going through all the lists within uBlock.

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                          One of the tricky bits is that security and privacy can sometimes be contradictory. Ex - Gmail is probably the most secure way to email WRT being very difficult to hack the infrastructure and as hard as best practices can make it to take over an account. Especially with best-practices like U2F keys - does any other email provider even implement U2F keys with no possible alternate account recovery method? However Gmail is not so good with privacy, in that they’ll happily hand over your emails to the US Gov, and probably any other national Gov too, and are scanning and processing all of your emails for various marketing purposes. So you have to decide which is most important to you and which threats you’re most worried about.

                          There are definitely some basic best practices though that apply to basically everyone, including using a password manager, using different passwords for every service, using any 2FA available on any service that offers it, and using ad blockers on your web browsers.

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                            One issue with checkbox item lists (“cookies, adblocker”) as pop up in this discussion is that they’re still not actionable for average users. And without some high-level explanation why they help and how they break down, these same users will just run into the next trap while feeling smug about how they’re safe.

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                              I don’t think it’s all that hard to sell people on using an ad blocker.

                              The tough sell is getting them off of services that have the tracker baked in, meaning that improving privacy degrades the rest of the experience rather than enhancing it.

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                              For technical people, the low hanging fruit is to browse with a javascript blocker.

                              Most sites work, and for those which don’t, you set up manual rules to allow their JS while blocking cookies and trackers.

                              After about a week your set up will be like 99% complete and you will be browsing an order of magnitude more secure, at very low effort. Of course they can still track you via IP and server logs, but at this point you can decide whether you want to use a VPN or Tor Browser.

                              (For non technical people, use just an ad blocker, which is much less aggresive and won’t break sites, but still block many malicious js/cookies)

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                                Not an Expert - just a few things off the top:

                                • Stop using services that claim to be “free” - because in fact you’re feeding them data about yourself that they’re guaranteed to sell in some way. If not today then tomorrow.

                                • Recognize that anything you post on the internet is forever. That any privacy claimed or implied by what you post is at the very least impermanent and suspect, and that it’s your responsibility to understand what data the websites you use and the apps you run are collecting on you.

                                • Set up and use a VPN - this can shield your immediate traffic from your ISP which, at least here in the US, is legally allowed to collect all kinds of demographic info on you simply by sniffing your traffic.

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                                  Looking at the other thread, it seems like the one most important thing is

                                  DO NOT USE GMAIL

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                                    I pay for my email account because it is kind of the backdoor for all my other online accounts.

                                    The danger of Gmail is even larger because it is a single account for much more than email which they can shut down for any reason like a wrong comment on YouTube. Privacy isn’t even my main reason to leave Gmail. I’m still sad because Gmail has the best UI for email in my opinion.

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                                      I have to use gmail for work. After using the fastmail web UI, google’s UI is abysmal by comparison IMO (possibly a fibre connection and high-end desktop would change that).

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                                      Broaden that: don’t use products from surveillance companies. Also, always be skeptical of anything that’s free. Being paid is no guarantee but free stuff from companies is malicious more often. Well, I don’t have data but it seems like it.

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                                      Achieve complete privacy: Encase your computer in concrete and drop it in an abyss

                                      Achieving the balance of security and convenience is the trick.

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                                        Shameless plug: https://blog.bejarano.io/hardening-macos.html

                                        Detailed explanation is for macOS Mojave but most of the tips are valid for many other platforms: block ads, keep software updated, use an unprivileged user for daily use…

                                        Don’t hesitate to contact me if you need help!

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                                          One of my first suggestions would be to set Firefox as your default browser, and in the Firefox preferences set DuckDuckGo as your default search provider. I believe we leak so much about ourselves through our web searches. Stuff we would never write in an email or show in terms of social media presence.

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                                            I recommend using an ad blocker.

                                            It’s the ad tech industry that’s doing all this mess in the first place. Short of government action, the most effective way to strangle this monster is to cut off their revenue stream.

                                            It’s also very easy to convince someone who’s just been hit by an ad with sound or scrolljacking, or a thing that redirects all their searches to a weird website they know nothing about, to install one, whereas getting someone to switch to ProtonMail and to use Tor Browser 24/7 is kind of hard. If you can give them a solution that doesn’t require changing their habits completely, you’re a hero.

                                            Ad Networks are a disturbingly popular way to distribute malware (I don’t mean “ads themselves are malware lol fite the powar”, I mean stuff like VSearch gets distributed with shovelware that is almost entirely advertised on shady ad networks).

                                            If you take nothing else from this whole discussion, if you want one thing and one thing only to convince your techno-phobic children, parents, siblings, and plumber to do to improve their privacy and security, install uBlock Origin and turn on the default filters. It may not impede a determined adversary, or even a powerful but non-determined one like Google, but it will improve your browsing experience.