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Big Brother Is Watching You Online: How To Avoid Being Tracked

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News briefs bombard television sets and computer screens around the globe, with cases of government whistleblowers, spying, cell phone hacking, private photographs leaked via iCloud, and more. Reports of the United States’ government usage of the PRISM program allegedly tracking over 1 million persons in the United States alone, has been particularly startling. Naturally, growing interest and attention has been placed on privacy and security, not only in banks and boardrooms but bedrooms and coffee shops around the world. Many want to avoid being tracked online, followed, spied on and their information automatically gathered, even if just to “check” on their Google searches, Skype calls, Facebook posts or email messages.

There are many ways to protect yourself from the prowling eyes of Big Brother and others who make a living following your every cyber move, but do keep in mind that nothing is 100% fool-proof. You have to assume that scammers, spammers, and others spend their days and nights finding ways to make your online experience vulnerable and under constant threat. That doesn’t mean you should succumb or act recklessly online, however.

Just to be extra cautious, before you even start reading this article, put a small strip of black electrical tape over your built-in computer camera. Hackers can remotely activate your webcam. Usually you’ll be able to tell it’s been turned on due to the red light, but that’s not always the case. There are techniques hackers and scammers use to avoid detection; don’t fall prey to their prying eyes.

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These are 12 ways to keep your information out of the crosshairs.

1. Clean your Internet browsing history after every use.

You are most commonly tracked online by your IP address and emails. Every site you visit online tracks your time spent there and leaves what are called ‘cookies’ on your computer. ‘Cookies,’ also known as ‘HTTP cookie,’ ‘web cookie,’ or ‘browser cookies’ are best thought of like crumbs. They remain, like little crumbs after you’ve eaten a cookie, in your machine and keep track of everything you’ve done. This is what allows you to log-in to previously viewed websites without being prompted to manually enter passwords and usernames every time. It keeps you logged in, or your data will already be pre-filled out before you log on. This is also one way that companies can see what items you are viewing when shopping or what articles you are reading on a news site or what you are researching on any given day. This helps companies and organizations determine how to engage with you and which product descriptions and pop-up ads will attract you to buy or click.

To get around this, you have to actively clean out your search history, and set your viewing patterns to private. Anything from Google Chrome, Firefox, all versions of Safari, Internet Explorer, Opera, and AOL, among others, can be cleaned out. Click each service above for specific instructions on how to delete your browsing history.

You can also download Piriform for deleting some bits of your online footprint. Ensuring you erase this data is one way to avoid being tracked online. You’ll need to keep better track of passwords, when you do this. If you are having a hard time managing your passwords, KeePassX is a password vault stored locally on your computer and encrypted.

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2. Create specific passwords for each account.

Don’t rely on the Internet to keep you safe. And don’t assume that no one will attempt to hack into your accounts because you’re not that interesting or you don’t have anything worth stealing. The lazier you are online the more chance for harm against you. Avoid passwords like ‘abcdef’ or ‘12345,’ and certainly never ‘password.’ Don’t share your passwords. Stay organized while creating online accounts. Keep them stored on a USB key document or in a notebook only you have access to. Take time to make passwords that are hard to guess and devoid of information that many people might know. If you are having trouble developing a good password, try LastPass.

3. Avoid JavaScript search engines.

StartPage, Google Chrome, Firefox, Duck Duck Go, and Cyber Ghost are alternative options to traditional search engines that track your behavior and choices online. Basic search engines use JavaScript. JavaScript is like the glue that keeps the Internet together. But it’s also what’s used in ‘cookies.’ If you are trying to avoid being tracked online, JavaScript, in a sense, is your enemy. You should take precautions to protect yourself from its power.

4. Use Tor and a Linux Live Image, like Tails.

Tor is one of the best methods of protection and security. Tor is free to download and install. By using Tor, you scramble your IP address, disguising your location and personal data. Your IP address, or Internet Protocol, is a numeric access code needed to use the internet. Your computer is automatically assigned an IP address via your internet provider, like Comcast, Time Warner, Verizon, among many others, and remains your online identifier. Tor is a trusted source for the likes of businesses, activists, journalists, military, law enforcement agencies, and even Edward Snowden.

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BBC is reporting, as of Monday, November 3, 2014, that Facebook is now allowing users to connect directly to the social network via Tor. This will be particularly beneficial for those in nations like North Korea, China, and Cuba, where Internet usage is heavily comprised.

A Linux Live Image, like Tails, is another useful method to avoid being tracked online. You can download the service, and burn it to a CD or USB key. It won’t allow any storing of your Internet activity, so after you shut down your computer, all your searches and other work will not be stored. If you opt for this, make sure you save your files, in pdf form, directly to the computer or on a USB key.

5. Don’t reply to suspicious emails and never accept friendship requests from people you don’t personally know.

This is one easy way Internet users slip up and invite spying and stalking, without knowing it. In recent news, police were using fake Facebook accounts to spy on users. Of course, the film Catfish is another cautionary tale of revealing too much online to people you don’t know. Take time to look through all your online accounts, like Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn. Remove and block contacts that send you spam messages; don’t positively engage in your network or those with whom you have no connections or don’t know in real life. It’s not impolite to decline invitations that won’t work for you, especially if you don’t even know the person extending the invitation or what their intention is.

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If you are an Apple user, you can forward suspicious emails purporting to be from the company, to reportphishing@apple.com. Microsoft users can visit their Security and Privacy page for more details on reporting questionable activity. Don’t shy away from the Facebook Report button, either.

6. Encrypt your email messages.

You can encrypt e-mails and files using GNU Privacy Guard (GnuPG or GPG). Your files will be bullet-proof and unreadable unless one has your pass phrase and the answer to your ‘‘secret question’’. When you install GPG, you are asked to provide a pass phrase and generate private and public keys. Keep the private key and pass phrase as safe as a newborn baby. These will allow you to decrypt your messages and files. When someone wants to send you a message or file they will use your public key to encrypt it. Feel free to share your public key with all persons you want to communicate with under the radar. This is how Edward Snowden leaked information to guerrilla film maker, Laura Poitras and The Guardian journalist, Glenn Greenwald.

7. Use a burner laptop and cell phone.

A ‘burner’ laptop or cellphone is a normal device. You can purchase a ‘burner’ like you normally would purchase a computer or cell phone. Choose whichever is in your price range, but the cheaper the better. For a ‘burner’ cell phone, choose a pre-paid version and pay only in cash. The ‘burner laptop’ is the only laptop you will ever use to connect to the internet. That includes streaming YouTube, Hulu, Netflix, or social networking sites. All internet access should go through this laptop, if you are intent on avoiding being tracked online. You can keep a computer for personal documents, diary entries, numbers, spread sheets or other personal files. Never save anything to the burner laptop. Once a month re-install the operating system you’ve chosen, and completely re-format the drive.

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8. Use Bitcoins.

The usage of Bitcoin is still a questionable monetary system, and not in general use with the public but still gaining considerable momentum in the financial arena. Bitcoin and Pay Pal have been joining forces. Some claim, using Bitcoins allow you to avoid paying taxes, and can be purchased anonymously, so you may avoid being tracked online or by other electronic means. It’s also a threat to central governments and disrupting the traditional banking system.

9. Don’t post overly personal details anywhere online.

Avoid birth dates, middle names, maiden names, social security numbers, telephone numbers, bank numbers or personal information on family members. Don’t post photographs that you would feel uncomfortable for others to see or potentially copy and re-use. This can be difficult, but setting your accounts to private and screening all friend requests is one to protect yourself and avoid being tracked online.

10. Read all the fine print.

When setting up online accounts, you are offered a User Agreement policy to read. Don’t ignore them. Copy and paste for later in-depth reading, wait to set up an account until you have the time to read through all the rules associated with that online forum or account. Make yourself aware of the implications involved. Avoid agreeing to contracts that you feel uncomfortable with or are unsure about. Some online accounts, apps or forums take liberty to use your personal details and even your networks personal details.

11. Pay attention to your privacy settings and updates to privacy options.

Look through your current online privacy settings, and set them according to your comfort level. Remember that when a company alters their privacy settings and security contracts, your previous settings are often not retained. Stay up to date and edit your settings. You may even wish to set a reminder on your phone for a monthly password change and check-up. The documentary, Terms and Conditions May Apply, takes a critical look at the ever-changing User Agreement policies.

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12. For the really paranoid: abandon all tech; use only paper, pen, typewriters and in-person chats and photo-sharing, the old-fashioned way.

Don’t assume spying or malicious hacking is only an American problem. After dozens of documents were released following government whistleblowers and data on the United States monitoring German intelligence, the German government took to typewriters, instead of electronic messaging services. Brazil, the United Kingdom and a number of other nations have also revealed aggressive means of data mining of their citizens.

Caveats and Pro-Tips to all information previously mentioned:

A. The trouble with all these methods is that criminals, and what the tech community calls, ‘black hat hackers,’ can also make use of these strategies and are often many steps ahead of you. This is what makes it hard to police the internet or prevent malicious use. The Dark Net, the nefarious underbelly of the internet, unseen by the general public, can be found using Tor. It is also home to The Silk Road, which allows criminals to sell anything from children to cocaine to hired killers.

B. Using public computer terminals, like those found at your local library or university, to avoid being tracked online, is not the answer. Your internet usage is still being tracked and is attached to your library account, which may include your Social Security Number, State Driver’s License or Identification Number. Government agencies, police and other authorities can still request your public internet behaviour, should you ever be accused of or charged with a crime. The positive side to this is that a criminal can be caught, like the recent murder case of Maribel Ramos in Orange County, California. Her murderer was found using the local library computer to pin-point a burial site using Google Maps.

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Stay safe!

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Featured photo credit: kennymaticvia flickr.com

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