The security of personal or important information from those who would exploit it for their own gain is an increasingly pressing concern for modern-day society.
It is hard to stay completely anonymous for personal privacy on the internet these days. The browsers and programmes we all use every day may leak data that could identify or locate us; on the other hand, there are tools and strategies out there that can help seal these minor breaches.
In addition, there are a number of groups that work to defend personal privacy online. Efforts such as these may have contributed to online security-related laws, in the EU at least, that enshrine relevant individual rights in theory at least. Therefore, we can celebrate such work on International Data Privacy Day (or Data Protection Day, as it is known in Europe), which falls on the 28th of January every year. It was instituted in 2007 to highlight individual rights to privacy in online environments, and helps keep it at the forefront of 21st-century social issues where it may well belong.
Celebrating Data Protection Day?
This international holiday falls on a Sunday this year, which may be an ideal chance for many to review their privacy as they browse using the internet on their personal devices. Potentially identifiable data can be leached from apps or programmes in a variety of ways. These mostly revolve around snooping out a user’s IP or ISP address, which can be used to infer location, at the least.
This information can be ‘masked’ through the use of a virtual personal network, or VPN. These applications report a different IP address to websites looking for that information. VPNs can make it appear as though you are in a different country to the one you actually are browsing from. There is a huge choice of VPNs available today.
However, it is important to choose one that is reputable and that does not leak DNS information. This information can also be used to divine an ISP address, and if your VPN does divulge your DNS, some sites can see where you’re really visiting from. You can check what DNS your browser shows websites by using the tests on DNSLeakTest.com.
More advanced users may be inclined to take their online security one step further with something like TOR browser, which bypasses many standard data paths used on the internet that may be monitored by unwanted parties. Your queries and data are instead routed through a series of encrypted tunnels instead. Many people regard TOR-powered browsing as the best way to remain anonymous online.
However, TOR-routed browsing could still be vulnerable, for example in situations of use on a shared computer infected with a key-logging programme. Furthermore, there are entire privacy-focused operating systems out there, some of which incorporate TOR as a browser. An example is Tails Live OS, which offers encrypted messaging and email solutions in addition to default anonymous browsing. In addition, it cannot interact with any other OS also installed on the device in question. On the other hand, Tails Live is (again) safest for use on single-user devices.
Online Privacy Protection: Don’t Forget the Real World
These strategies for the protection of personal information are interesting and effective, but it’s also vital to remember that online privacy threats can be physical as well as virtual.
The technology company 3M are using this International Data Protection Day to remind us of the risks that are all around us in our everyday offline lives. These include the possibilities that criminals will glean personal information from our screens while we are using them in public spaces. This might be done through memorising this sensitive data or through photographing it.
This may be termed a breach of visual privacy, and may be just as dangerous as hackers, programmes or scripts encountered online. 3M commissioned a study by the Ponemon Institute on this subject in 2016, and found that this ‘visual hacking’ was successful in just over 90 percent of all attempts.
The company now advises people and businesses to improve their visual privacy in order to reduce the chances of financial losses and other adverse events such as identity theft. Accordingly, 3M suggest that we make sure to keep all important physical documents secured and out of sight as much as possible.
People can also be vigilant for the angles at which their screens could be seen by others in public. Off-centre screen viewing may also be prevented through the use of screen protectors with filters that make displays unreadable unless they are viewed head-on (incidentally, 3M is a manufacturer of just such products). It’s also advisable to set short latencies to screen inactivation or locking for devices that could be left unattended, and to set a screen-unlocking password for their re-activation later.
Enjoy your International Data Protection Day!
There is a considerable amount of threat to the online privacy of individuals everywhere in this day and age.
However, interested bodies such as the Electronic Freedom Foundation (EFF) exist to at least try and make the internet safer for people. They offer useful plug-ins such as HTTPS Everywhere and Privacy Badger, which claim to patch some of the ‘holes’ in the information-security settings of most browsers. These may go further than the ‘Do Not Track’ requests that can be sent by these apps.
Data privacy may be important for peace of mind, as well as protection from hacking. Consider celebrating this year’s Data Protection Day as an ideal opportunity to learn more about our internet privacy, and how to improve your typical internet habits.
Top image: Data protection: (Public Domain)
Brunner G. 20 Best Tips to Stay Anonymous and Protect Your Online Privacy. ExtremeTech. 2017. Available at: https://www.extremetech.com/internet/180485-the-ultimate-guide-to-staying-anonymous-and-protecting-your-privacy-online
Vanilla PR. 3M shares advice on improving visual privacy – ready for Data Privacy Day this Sunday. Response Source. 2018. Available at: https://pressreleases.responsesource.com/news/94821/m-shares-advice-on-improving-visual-privacy-ready-for-data