Avoiding Internet Surveillance: The Complete Guide

Dann Albright 25-01-2015

Internet surveillance has been a hot topic in recent years—we’ve talked about it extensively here at MakeUseOf, it’s been brought up on major news outlets daily, and we’ve seen a slew of new apps, extensions, and products aimed at helping you retain your privacy online.

This guide is available to download as a free PDF. Download Avoiding Internet Surveillance: The Complete Guide now. Feel free to copy and share this with your friends and family.

This article is meant to be as comprehensive a resource as possible on avoiding Internet surveillance. We’ll talk about why Internet surveillance is such a big deal, who’s behind it, whether or not you can completely avoid it Can You Escape Internet Surveillance Programs Like PRISM? Ever since Edward Snowden blew the whistle on PRISM, the NSA's no longer secret surveillance program, we know one thing with certainty: nothing that happens online can be considered private. Can you really escape the... Read More , and a wide range of tools that will make you harder to track, identify, and spy on.

Why Worry About Internet Surveillance?

Before we get into the details of avoiding Internet surveillance, we should discuss exactly what sort of surveillance we’re talking about and why you might want to dodge it. Unless you’ve been living under a rock for a few years, you’ve heard about Edward Snowden and the documents that he released detailing surveillance programs run by the US National Security Administration (NSA) and the UK’s Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ).


One of the most commonly discussed programs is called PRISM, and it allows the NSA to collect data from the servers of US service providers, including Microsoft, Apple, Google, Facebook, Yahoo!, and others. Anything you have stored on someone’s servers is potentially at risk of being collected and analyzed (to get the details, check out this article on everything you need to know about PRISM What Is PRISM? Everything You Need to Know The National Security Agency in the US has access to whatever data you're storing with US service providers like Google Microsoft, Yahoo, and Facebook. They're also likely monitoring most of the traffic flowing across the... Read More ).

Other programs, like FAIRVIEW and STORMBREW, collect all traffic heading through a specific gateway or router. In both cases, there’s a wide variety of information that could potentially be collected, from browsing data and history How To Block Any Site Or Browser From Saving Recent Sites You Visited Your web browser stores a list of your recently visited websites. Clearing this list is easy, but you’ll want to block your browser from saving history in the first place if you find yourself clearing... Read More to emails, chats, videos, photos, and file transfers. There are many others as well, including the recently revealed XKEYSCORE, which could make sure that you’re on the NSA’s watch list Your Interest in Privacy Will Ensure You're Targeted by the NSA Yes, that's right. If you care about privacy, you may be added to a list. Read More if you search for privacy-related things like secure Linux distros Linux Operating Systems for the Paranoid: What Are the Most Secure Options? Switching to Linux delivers many benefits for users. From a more stable system to a vast selection of open source software, you're onto a winner. And it won't cost you a penny! Read More or virtual private networks (VPNs).


Of course, the US and the UK aren’t the only countries collecting data on citizens—it happens all over the world. It just so happens that we know the most about what’s going on in these two countries. And governments aren’t the only ones who are watching your movements online—this information is very valuable to private companies as well. While they won’t be reading your emails, they may track your browsing activity, social networking habits How To Block Facebook And Other Social Networks From Tracking You Online Whenever you visit a site with a Like, Tweet or +1 button, you're actually sharing data with Facebook, Twitter or Google. And that's not all. There are hundreds of advertising and data collection companies that... Read More , the apps you use, and information about your friends.


While this information is collected by private companies like social networks and retailers, it’s certainly possible that it will end up in government hands, either through programs like PRISM or through court orders to hand the data over. The same goes for the data collected by your Internet service provider Two Ways Your ISP Is Spying on You and How to Be Safe [10 x SurfEasy Total VPN + BlackBerry Z10 Giveaway] It's a bad time to be a Verizon customer. Read More , which you might not even know about (much like users of Telstra had no idea their browsing habits were being logged and sent overseas).

So why might you want to keep governments and companies from getting this sort of information? There could be a wide variety of reasons: you’re a proponent of digital privacy, you’re worried that you could face discrimination or harassment because of your online activity, or because you feel that it violates human rights. All of these are perfectly good reasons for avoiding Internet surveillance.


If you’ve read this far, you’re probably already committed to the idea. However, there are a lot of people out there who believe they don’t have to worry about surveillance because they don’t have anything to hide. If we have a right to privacy, however, this argument is invalid. To find out more about why this argument just doesn’t work, you can read the section on it in my article about the Don’t Spy on Us event Lessons Learned From Don't Spy On Us: Your Guide To Internet Privacy Read More .

Now that you have a better understanding of exactly what it is that we’re trying to avoid here, we can get into the details!

Hide Your Browsing Data

More than almost anything else, your browsing habits define you as an online entity. The sites you go to, the ads you see, the links you click—they all create a footprint that’s specific to you and your interests. Even if you don’t use your browser to access disreputable or dangerous sites, concealing this information could be valuable to you, especially if you live in a country that actively suppresses non-standard views Why The Next 10 Years Looks Bad for Internet Censorship Although denizens of the world are learning more about censorship and learning new ways to counteract it, the outlook for the future of Internet freedom isn't looking good. Read More (as we’ve seen in Iran, China, and Turkey). So how can you make sure no one’s watching what you’re doing online?

One of the simplest ways to go about concealing your actions on the web is to use a virtual private network, or VPN. When you’re engaging in unsecured browsing, your computer reaches out, through your ISP, across the Internet, to another site. Once you’ve made this connection, you can view that site. However, if anyone is looking closely, they can see that connection. A VPN inserts an intermediary server between you and the site you’re connecting to—if someone is looking now, all they’ll see is a connection from the VPN server to the site on the other end. Your connection to the VPN server is encrypted, concealing your identity.


There are quite a few VPNs that are free The 5 Fastest VPN Services (One Is Even Completely Free) Looking for a fast VPN but don't want to pay too much for it? Here are the fastest VPN services that we've tested. Read More , which is great if you don’t use them all the time—many people only use them to access region-blocked video 2 Effective Ways to Access Region-Blocked Videos Without a VPN Internet users outside of the United States are blocked from accessing the wealth of streaming video and music content available to Americans. Even Americans are deprived of international services like BBC iPlayer. Faced with this,... Read More  when they want to watch Netflix from another country, for example. If you’re interested in getting a higher bandwidth limit, more speed, and no ads, you should look into paying for a VPN—we have a list of the best VPN services The Best VPN Services We've compiled a list of what we consider to be the best Virtual Private Network (VPN) service providers, grouped by premium, free, and torrent-friendly. Read More that you can check out. In most cases, it’s as simple as downloading a browser extension or an app, running a five-minute setup, and you’ll be on your way.


If a VPN is thought of as “one hop,” using the Tor network can be thought of as “three hops.” Instead of setting up a single server between you and your destination, using the Tor system bounces your connection through three separate servers before making the connection to the site you want to go to. The increased complexity of the connection makes it extremely difficult for anyone to monitor browsing traffic (though it’s been rumored that the NSA is making some progress in compromising the system).

To use Tor, you just need to download the Tor browser bundle and install it (we have a full guide to Tor Really Private Browsing: An Unofficial User’s Guide to Tor Tor provides truly anonymous and untraceable browsing and messaging, as well as access to the so called “Deep Web”. Tor can’t plausibly be broken by any organization on the planet. Read More available that goes through the process in detail)—then, whenever you use the Tor browser, you’ll be routed through the Tor network. In addition to browsing with significantly increased security, you’ll also have access to .onion sites How to Find Active .Onion Dark Web Sites (And Why You Might Want To) The Dark Web, in part, consists of .onion sites, hosted on the Tor network. How do you find them and where to go? Follow me... Read More , websites that can only be visited through the Tor network.


If you want to make sure that your browsing is maximally secure, and that it’s next to impossible to trace, you can route your connection through a VPN and the Tor network. This makes for four servers between you and your destination. No one’s going to go through enough trouble to track you through that mess unless you’re at the top of an intelligence agency’s list.


Another way that your browsing can be tracked is through files that are placed on your computer: cookies. These files can come from a number of sources, but one of the nefarious ways that you can receive trackers is through ads (which, as we have been finding out recently, can deposit a lot of bad stuff Meet Kyle And Stan, A New Malvertising Nightmare Read More on your computer). So how can you prevent these from sending data to snoopers? Ad blocking.

It’s a controversial practice, because ads keep much of the Internet free (see “Are Ad Blocking Browser Extensions Killing The Internet? Are Ad Blocking Browser Extensions Killing The Internet? One of the reasons for the Internet’s surge in popularity is the cost of most online content – or rather, the lack of cost. That’s not to say the content is free, however. Almost every... Read More ” and “AdBlock, NoScript, and Ghostery – The Trifecta of Evil AdBlock, NoScript & Ghostery - The Trifecta Of Evil Over the past few months, I've been contacted by a good number of readers who have had problems downloading our guides, or why they can't see the login buttons or comments not loading; and in... Read More “). However, blocking ads will prevent those ads from placing files on your computer. This means no cookies, no tracking information, and no malware. The prevalence of ad-embedded malware is on the rise, and blocking ads is currently the best way of keeping your computer safe; running an effective antivirus program like Avast is also a good idea (though that might expose you to other forms of tracking Is Your Antivirus Tracking You? Here's What You Need to Know Free antivirus software comes with a price: your privacy. It's time to switch to antivirus software that doesn't track you. Read More , as well).

If you’re not willing to go through the effort (and potentially slow your connection down a bit) to run VPNs or the Tor network on a regular basis, the best thing to do is to download and install a number of browser extensions. HTTPS Everywhere and Disconnect Search are two of the best, and they’re available for both Firefox Use These 6 Extensions To Improve Privacy & Security On Firefox You are being watched on the Internet – but if you use Mozilla Firefox, some of its great add-ons can help protect your privacy and security on the Web. Read More and Chrome.

Fortify Your Email Security

While browsing creates a digital footprint of your life, email has the potential to carry your most personal secrets, important business communications, and other kinds of sensitive information. While you might not send that sort of thing via email very often, it’s likely that you do discuss your opinions, beliefs, and plans, all of which could potentially be of interest to the government. What can you do to keep your private messages private?

First of all, it’s important to know that securing just one side of an email conversation won’t do you much good. If you send an encrypted message to a friend, and your friend stores it in an unencrypted format on a public server, it’s going to be pretty easy for someone to nab that message. Email is an inherently insecure medium Why Email Can't Be Protected From Government Surveillance “If you knew what I know about email, you might not use it either,” said the owner of secure email service Lavabit as he recently shut it down. "There is no way to do encrypted... Read More , which means you probably shouldn’t be using it for extremely private things at all. But there are a few things you can do to step up your security.

One of the most well-known and commonly used methods of encrypting email is called Pretty Good Privacy (PGP). The specific mechanics are quite complicated, but you can get the details in this guide to using PGP What Is PGP? How Pretty Good Privacy Works, Explained Pretty Good Privacy is one method for encrypting messages between two people. Here's how PGP works and how anyone can use it. Read More . In a nutshell, the message is encrypted on your computer, signed with a digital key, and sent to your recipient. That person then uses their own personal key (which is kept secret) to decrypt the message. Theoretically, PGP is nearly uncrackable.


PGP is a very popular option, but setting it up takes some minimal time and effort. If you’d skip the setup, you can use secure services like Hushmail, Vaultlet, and Enigmail, all of which were discussed in this article on secure email providers The 5 Most Secure and Encrypted Email Providers Fed up with government and third-party surveillance of your emails? Protect your messages with a secure encrypted email service. Read More . These offer a number of different protections that help you rest easy that your mail won’t be easily intercepted and viewed by prying eyes.

Encrypting your mail will go a long way towards keeping the government from reading your messages, but they’re not the only ones who are interested in it. For example, Gmail monitors the contents of your messages The Gmail Panopticon: The End of Privacy as We Know It? Your emails are being read. What does this mean for online privacy going forward? Read More for specific triggers that indicate that you might be engaging in specific illegal activities. Earlier this year, the system alerted the authorities to a man who was trading child pornography. In addition to this sort of monitoring, they also scan the contents of your personal messages to better target ads.

Because of the insecurity of email and the fact that your email provider could be scanning your messages, your best bet is to not send anything via email that you’d like to keep private.

Encrypt Your Chats and IMs

We’ve started using instant messages for a lot of things, from quick personal chats to in-depth professional discussions. If you use Google’s chat app, you probably have thousands of IMs saved, and it’s quite likely that if you were to look through them, you’d find a huge variety of things that you don’t want other people to have access to. So what can you do to make sure no one’s snooping on your IMs?

One of the most widely used encryption protocols for instant messaging is called Off-the-Record messaging, or OTR. It uses an interesting style of cryptography called deniable authentication, which means that after the conversation, both participants can deny the existence of the conversation. Using OTR is quite simple: if two people have chat clients that can use the protocol, all they have to do is turn it on. A number of OTR-capable clients are now available, including Adium Adium - The Ultimate Instant Messaging App [Mac] Start using the best instant messaging client out there for Mac. It's called Adium, it connects to everything and there's no reason for not using it. Okay, there's one reason - Adium does not support... Read More and Pidgin Combine All Your IM Accounts In One Application With Pidgin [Windows & Linux] Pidgin is a free instant-messaging client that combines all your IM accounts in one simple application. Instead of running several different IM clients that display ads and eat up memory, just use Pidgin. All your... Read More , which provide OTR encryption for Google Talk, Facebook chat, AIM, Yahoo! Messenger, and a number of other protocols.


In addition to this widely used protocol, there are a number of other less well-known solutions. A great example of this is Cryptocat CryptoCat: Provides Private & Encrypted Chatting Within Your Web Browser Read More , a web app that allows you to create an encrypted chat on the fly and invite others to join it by sending a link. After an hour of inactivity, your chats are wiped. It’s one of the easiest ways to encrypt a chat, you don’t need to download anything, and the browser extension lets you fire it up with a click.

SafeChat is another alternative that’s used for encrypting Facebook chats Keep Your Facebook Chats Secure With Encryption Facebook wants to take your personal messages and use them as a way to target you with more advertising. Let's try to stop them. Read More —so if you use Facebook primarily or exclusively for your IMing needs, it’s a good way to go. It’s available not only as a free Chrome and Firefox extension, but also as an iOS app, so you can continue your secure chatting on the go. ChatSecure is another app that allows you to securely use Facebook Chat and Google Talk from your phone.

Remember that with all of these encryption options, like secure email, both parties need to be using encrypted clients, or else anyone who wants to see what’s in your chat can just pull the information from your interlocutor’s computer.

Protect Your Messages

Chat, IM, and messaging are all becoming more similar, but there are still times when you want to use an app that’s a bit more like a traditional text messaging app Text Better With These Alternative SMS Apps for Android Don't like your default SMS app? Try a new one! Read More than an instant messenger. Many of the apps that people use on a regular basis from their phones fall into this category, so it’s worth look at on its own. Because almost everyone uses them, they’re of high value to prying eyes—we saw a great example of this in South Korea last year.

There have also been a number of concerns over the privacy of specific messaging clients, such as when Facebook acquired WhatsApp Facebook WhatsApp, SkyDrive OneDrive, Yahoo Siri, Apple Tesla [Tech News Digest] Facebook buys WhatsApp, FCC responds to the loss of 'net neutrality', SkyDrive becomes OneDrive, Yahoo wants its own Siri, Apple is interested in Tesla, and Samsung mocks Apple in its latest set of television commercials. Read More . Although Facebook still hasn’t done much with the messaging app, it’s common knowledge that they collect a huge amount of data on users of their social network (including data on your offline purchases), and there’s been discussion of collecting some of that data through the contents of Facebook chat messages. Obviously, the acquisition of WhatsApp was cause for concern.

Since then, however, WhatsApp has stepped up its game in relation to security and privacy. In a recent Android update, it turned on end-to-end encryption for messages, meaning that not even the servers at WhatsApp contain unencrypted messages. This is a huge victory for privacy advocates. While this encryption hasn’t been enabled for all platforms yet, it’s likely to come in the near future.


Although WhatsApp remains at the top of messaging app popularity list, there are a lot of other great options. Telegram Telegram Provides a Secure and Fast-Growing Alternative to WhatsApp Read More is quickly becoming more popular, and beat WhatsApp to the punch on many features, like end-to-end encryption, self-destructing messages, and a web client. Telegram’s cloud-based messaging lets you see your messages from your phone, tablet, computer, and any other computer via a browser. The encryption protocol was developed specifically for the app to be highly secure and very fast. And it beats WhatsApp’s great $1-per-year pricing by being free.

We’ve profiled a number of other secure messaging apps 6 Secure iOS Messaging Apps That Take Privacy Very Seriously Don't fancy your messages being read by unwanted parties? Get a secure messaging app and worry no more. Read More in the past, including Silent Text, Threema, Wickr, and Confide. If you can convince everyone that you regularly message to download one of these apps, you’ll have no cause to worry about the security of your messaging. Obviously it’s best if everyone’s using the same app, but the low cost of these options means it’s easy to message one group of friends with one app and another group with another.

Secure Your Mobile Device

While some of the apps and strategies listed above can be used on your mobile phone, there are a few issues that are unique to phones, such as the collection of metadata Avoiding Internet Surveillance: The Complete Guide Internet surveillance continues to be a hot topic so we've produced this comprehensive resource on why it's such a big deal, who's behind it, whether you can completely avoid it, and more. Read More . If you’ve been paying attention to the latest news on the NSA’s data collection practices, you’ll have heard of metadata—but you might not know what it is. Put succinctly, metadata is information about your information.

Metadata includes things like the phone numbers you’ve called, when you called them, how long you were on the phone, which cell towers you used during the call, and the location of the recipient of the call. Taken together, these things can actually reveal a lot about your conversation and your relationship with the person you’re talking to. Of course, with a court order, government agencies can also easily get a wiretap on your phone How to Tell If Your Phone Is Tapped: 6 Warning Signs How can you tell if your phone is tapped? And can you know who tapped it? Let's look at the warning signs and what you can do. Read More , but that’s much less likely to happen.


The difficulty in protecting your metadata is that it’s comprised of information stored by your phone company, and that information can be requested or subpoenaed. Companies aren’t exactly resistant in handing it over.

Unfortunately, the things you can do to protect your metadata are limited. Mobile hardware and software focused on privacy, like the BlackPhone and Silent Circle, helps a lot. They encrypt metadata and make it much more difficult for anyone to obtain it. You can also use a burner phone Sick of the NSA Tracking You? Burn Them with a Burner Phone Sick of the NSA tracking you using your phone's positioning coordinates? Prepaid phones known colloquially as "burners" can provide you with partial privacy. Read More , if you’d rather not have the NSA collecting data on your phone calls, though this approach does come with some inconvenient drawbacks.

One of the interesting points that a few people have brought up recently is the fact that by offering end-to-end encryption in WhatsApp, Facebook is essentially throwing away a huge amount of potentially valuable data. No one believes that they would offer this feature just for users’ privacy after paying $19 billion for the app, so that value has to be made up somewhere—and most people are pointing to metadata. It’s really valuable.


Beyond the methods above, the best way to keep your metadata out of the hands of the NSA is political: join campaigns to reform metadata-collection laws, hold companies accountable for the data that they hand over to the government, and make sure your voice is heard.

Although it’s tough to prevent the collection of your metadata, there are a number of things you can do to keep the content of your communications private. Using the apps detailed above for messaging is a great place to start (especially if you, like many people, do a lot more messaging than calling). And Guy’s article on three ways to make your smartphone more secure 3 Ways To Make Your Smartphone Communications More Secure Total privacy! Or so we think, as our words and information went flying through the air. Not so: First it's word of warrantless wiretapping, then it's word of newspapers, lawyers, insurers and more hacking your... Read More  details Kryptos and Silent Phone, two VoIP apps that encrypt your calls, making them very resistant to any sort of data collection.

Messaging and calling isn’t all that you use your phone for, however—a lot of people also do a great deal of mobile browsing, and just like on your computer, this information can potentially be tracked. To protect your browsing data, there are a number of mobile VPN services that you can set up to use just like the ones discussed above for your computer. We’ve written about HotSpot Shield Hotspot Shield: A Solid VPN That's Available Free Of Charge Read More  and VPN Express 2 Free VPN Services for Secure Browsing on Your iOS Device Read More  for iOS, as well as a number of Android VPN apps The 5 Best VPNs for Android Need a VPN for your Android device? Here are the best Android VPNs and how to get started with them. Read More , that will keep your mobile browsing data safe.


Many VPN services now offer both desktop and mobile protection, and you can get both by signing up for an account—if you’re concerned about your privacy and you don’t wanted limited bandwidth, spending $10 or $15 each month on a premium VPN The Best VPN Services We've compiled a list of what we consider to be the best Virtual Private Network (VPN) service providers, grouped by premium, free, and torrent-friendly. Read More might be well worth the cost.

Unfortunately, it’s difficult or impossible to prevent your service provider (or Google, or Apple) from tracking your location using the GPS receiver—if you really want to keep anyone from knowing where you are by tracking your phone, your best bet is to turn your phone off and take the battery out, or use the BlackPhone.

And don’t forget to opt out of ad tracking, too. It’s different on each phone, so check out this article on the basics of smartphone privacy Smartphone Privacy Settings You Need To Activate Today Smartphones ship with plenty of default settings that could be leaking your info. Let's dive in and tweak them. Read More .

Keeping Your Social Life Private

Using secure browsing and messaging techniques will keep most of your social networking data from falling into the hands of the government (unless, of course, a social network gives in and hands your data over to the NSA, which is certainly possible). However, social networks—especially Facebook—are doing a lot of surveillance on their own. While they may not be collecting data to see if you’re a potential threat to national security, they can make a lot of money with it What Does Facebook Selling Your Data Mean For Privacy? Read More . (You can make money selling your own data I Make $2000 A Year Selling My Personal Information, You Can Too Don't be one of those suckers that sells their information for nothing! Read More , too, but that counteracts quite a bit of the advice in this guide.)

The amount of data collected by Facebook is staggering—they collect so much that they can create “shadow profiles Facebook Shadow Profiles: You Probably Have One Too [Weekly Facebook Tips] You think you're not on Facebook? Think again. Facebook no doubt has a shadow profile made just for you. You may recall recently that Facebook found a bug exposing personal details of 6 million user... Read More ” of people who don’t even have Facebook accounts just by collating information from other users’ contacts. Other sites that are linked to Facebook send your information back to their servers (though you can use tools like Facebook Disconnect to prevent that). And let’s not forget about the fact that other companies can gather mass amounts of public Facebook data Should You Be Concerned About Your Facebook Data Being Scraped? How would you feel if you discovered your picture on a website, where people rank the picture as to whether or not you look like a jerk? Well, it's a true story. Read More , too.


While you might feel like your privacy is being violated—even to the degree where it might be illegal in some cases—there’s not much you can do about it. The terms of service of major online services, from Facebook and Twitter to Google and Dropbox, almost always require that you give up at least a good portion of your rights to privacy to use the service. Even your Facebook chats could be scanned.

Even more unnervingly, Facebook can figure out when its ads have influenced your offline purchase decisions. There are very few places where you’re not being surveilled by the social giant. Remember that Facebook isn’t the only culprit here—it’s just the biggest one. Twitter tracks the apps you have on your phone Stop Twitter Tracking Your Apps, GoPro Is Developing Drones, & More... [Tech News Digest] Also, Obama signs the E-Label Act, 100 free music albums, get Torchlight for free, and a Keyboard Waffle Iron comes to Kickstarter. Read More , and we recently published an article on ten social networks 10 Social Mobile Apps That Breach Your Teenager's Privacy Your children have become proto-adults, beginning to grow up. Like their friends, they spend a lot of time using smartphones, tablets and computers in a way you could only dream of. Read More that are pretty bad when it comes to privacy.

If you’ve signed up for a social network, they’re almost certainly collecting some data about you. Everything You Need To Know About - The "Other" Social Network was born out of frustration with the status quo. How much do you know about it? Read More  is a social network that isn’t funded by ads, so you can probably feel safe that your data, even though some if it’s being collected (as can be seen in their privacy policy), won’t be sold to advertisers.


However, you can take steps to limit the amount of data that’s being collected. One of our Facebook Weekly Tips from 2013 dealt specifically with limiting the amount of tracking How To Stop Facebook From Tracking Everything You Do [Facebook Weekly Tips] Facebook has basically made a business out of knowing as much as they can possibly find out about everyone. So, tracking your behaviour online and offline makes perfect sense to them. However, it might not... Read More Facebook can do. You can also opt out of sharing data with Facebook How to Stop Facebook From Selling Your Browsing Data Did you plan on sharing your browser history with advertisers? Because if you have been sharing your browsing history with Facebook then that's exactly what's going to happen. Read More through the Digital Advertising Alliance (though the efficacy of that is debated). It’s a good idea to take these steps, as a lot of social networks, as well as other online companies, may be able to bypass your browser’s security settings Make Your Browsing Safer with These 7 Simple Tips Safe browsing is more of an ongoing task than a set-it-and-forget-it affair. That's why we have come up with seven essential starter tips to help you browse more safely. Read More .

Unfortunately, the best way to avoid being surveilled by social networks is to not use them . . . and limit the amount of contact that you have with people who do.

Take Privacy Into Your Own Hands

As you can see, avoiding Internet surveillance isn’t easy. In fact, completely avoiding it is nearly impossible. And taking all of the steps above will cost you quite a bit of time, effort, and money. But is it worth it? That all depends on how you feel about your privacy.

We know that “nothing to hide, nothing to fear” just isn’t a viable argument when it comes to online privacy. We are being pervasively watched by governments, companies, and service providers around the clock, while we’re on our computers, phones, and tablets. We’re even being watched by social networks when we’re away from our computers—and often when we don’t even have accounts.


As I mentioned earlier, all of this, for the most part, doesn’t really affect our daily lives (other than creating an information filter bubble How Do You Feel About Being In Facebook's Psych Experiment? [Weekly Facebook Tips] You've probably heard about the latest scandal from the Facebook world: Facebook has been experimenting on users and playing with their emotions. Yes, really. Read More ). But if history has shown us anything, it’s that the status quo can be changed at any time, often when we least expect it. And beyond practical safety concerns, what about our right to privacy? Don’t we have a right to have a private life that’s truly private? That can’t be seen by people who are suspicious of our actions or those who are using us to make copious amounts of money?

It’s time to take your online privacy into your own hands. Use the strategies outlined above and share them with others—the more we fight back against pervasive Internet surveillance, the more likely we are to retain our privacy and online freedom.

What steps do you take to ensure that you’re not being surveilled online? Do you feel like your privacy is being violated by companies and governments? Or do you feel that it’s not worth the effort? Share your thoughts below!

Image credits: Beautiful business woman secretly texting (edited) via ShutterstockLaura Poitras via Wikimedia Commons; Safety concept: pixelated Key, Security concept: Lock on digital screen, Two businessperson shaking handsPretty young business womanSecretive Couple with Smart Phones via Shutterstock; See-Ming Lee via flickrsmartphone hand usingView of three nurses in hospital canteen via Shutterstock; Maria Elena via flickr, Projecting The Future via Shutterstock.

Related topics: Longform Guide, Online Privacy, Online Security, Surveillance.

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  1. Freedom Fighter
    August 29, 2016 at 10:47 pm


    Freedom is NOT free guys! May great men and women have died in order for us to be free.

    Please remember the words of Benjamin Franklin when you're worried about a few isolated acts of terror.

    They that can give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety. They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety. Those Who Sacrifice Liberty For Security Deserve Neither.

  2. ABC
    March 17, 2016 at 3:33 am

    Help my leaders went AWOL and nobody can stop them. Everyone who tries dies or ends up in jail or another country seeking freedom. My leaders stabbed my Constitution like it was Cesar yet it did nothing wrong, they were incompetent and lustful full of greed and they are blind to it. God help us all!

  3. Daniele
    January 29, 2015 at 2:33 pm

    Absolutely Dann. I totally agree. But..let me say.. I wish this was our problem in the medium term: having to ask governments our privacy restored because the danger is over!
    Unfortunately, even if I consider myself optimistic, I guess this is not likely to happen soon.
    In any case you are right; personal privacy, within legalality, is inalienable right and only exceptional situations can justify its limitations and only as long as needed.
    Orwell's Big Brother profecy is a real risk, but bombs are more real and actual!In areas taken over by terrorists, personal privacy in internet communications is the last of problems.
    It is interesting to discuss privacy issues under the technical point of view, but it's necessary not to forget political, cultural contest, what is actually happening in the world.
    Many technically well educated people, over the Net, speculate on the subject as if nothing was going on, as if we were living in a peaceful, well organized, prosperous global village community, where getting spied over personal email exchange would be unacceptable.
    I am not saying this has not to be done, but struggling to find ways to avoid being spied on (and divulgate these ways to the public) is a help to those who need to hide for criminal purpouses (it is obvious I know, but many researchers just forget that or don't care). Efforts should be directed in on-line fighting those illegal organizations who primarily benefit from sneaking and avoiding control.
    We probably have a different perception of the danger, mine makes me think privacy is a luxury we cannot afford anymore or wil soon be so. That's why I hope criminals will NOT find new ways to hide themselves. When everythig is over we will fight for regaining right of privacy. Thanks for reading, and escuse my sometimes little understandable english! :)

    • Dann Albright
      February 1, 2015 at 7:05 am

      You do bring up a very good point—in many cases, violations of privacy do have our best interests in mind—if digital spying is used to stop a terrorist attack, most people would probably say that it's worth it. To that I agree—if the government thinks that there's a good reason to watch someone's actions online, I'm all for it. It's the mass collection of a lot of data that worries me, which is why I think citizens are entitled to make it a little harder for analysts to figure out what they're doing. None of these things will keep the NSA from spying on you, but they might prevent it if you're not a high-priority target, which I think is pretty reasonable.

      I think we do have a different perception of danger, and that's why these kinds of conversations are so insightful! The group of people that surround me are generally very pro-privacy, so it's really good to hear some other arguments. You've brought up some really points, and you've made it clear that there are issues at stake that are larger than whether or not the government knows where you do your online shopping.

      Thanks for your very interesting comments!

  4. Daniele
    January 28, 2015 at 12:02 pm

    Sorry Dann for my english. :)
    You got what I meant anyway.
    By terrorism contrast, I mean fight against it.
    About everyday shower ( :) ) I mean: in times of major threats and emergencies, we can stand the fact that our emails are spied on by governments tring to prevent attacks or to jail terrorists. Justlike our parents weren't worried about showering everyday during WWII, while busy avoiding bombs (in most of Europe at least).
    Myself I accept a limitation in privacy if this can effectively help fighting this dark cloud of terror expanding from middle east. I am in Italy and ISIS is tragically active in Tripoli, Libia, a few hundreds kms from our southern coasts. Europe is also geographically near to all this! I guess I am off topic now but concept of privacy is already changed because of terrorism!

    • Dann Albright
      January 29, 2015 at 1:38 pm

      Okay, I see what you mean. There's definitely a tradeoff between privacy and security, and, like you, I would imagine that many people are happy to sacrifice some of their privacy for more security, especially when much of the world is facing the sort of upheavals that they are. That makes perfect sense to me!

      However, many people have pointed out that it's easy to give more leeway to the government, but it's very hard to reduce the actions that they can take. Basically, it's easy to say "Okay, we're willing to sacrifice a bit of our privacy," but very difficult to say "We no longer feel that there's a need for this increased surveillance." Once the government has been given more power, they're unlikely to want to give it up. Would you agree?

  5. Daniele
    January 28, 2015 at 10:59 am

    I guess we're running into an era in which bigger problems will draw attention. Terrorism contrast is a priority and even if we refuse this, it has and will further, change our idea of personal freedom.
    The problem is weather spying on us will be justified by security reasons or not. Those who have nothing criminal to hide will be offended by the end of privacy rights, but.. in times of war people don't mind taking a shower every day!

    • Dann Albright
      January 28, 2015 at 11:15 am

      I'm not sure what you mean by "terrorism contrast," but I do agree that the events of the past 15 years are making us take a serious look at personal freedoms and the price we pay (or don't) for those freedoms. And you're exactly right about the debate between spying and personal freedom / privacy . . . there's always got to be a balance between security and privacy. I'm all for the government using its full resources to get all information possible on a person if they have good reason to believe that they're a threat.

      As for taking a shower every day . . . what?

  6. YellowApple
    January 27, 2015 at 8:09 pm

    You've left out the most important piece (though you brushed on it a bit): don't install untrustworthy software. This includes untrustworthy operating systems.

    Transparency is a dependency of trust. When software developers keep the inner workings (read: source code) of their software hidden from you, it means they're trying to hide things from you. Those things could be anything from their own commercial secrets to surveillance methods or worse. Windows, Mac OS X (and - especially - iOS), the vast majority of websites - all examples of proprietary, non-free, closed source software which should absolutely *not* be trusted. Even most Linux distributions ship with closed source drivers and firmware, particularly for video card and wireless compatibility.

    If you really do care about not being spied on, you need to be using an entirely-open-source operating system; otherwise, all the other advice in this article is entirely worthless, since the countermeasures described here rely on the trustworthiness of the operating system (and browser) to be effective. Any of the GNU/Linux distributions endorsed by the Free Software Foundation would be a start. Debian can also be easily configured to exclude non-free firmware blobs, and OpenBSD is another good choice for those concerned about their electronic privacy.

    • Dann Albright
      January 27, 2015 at 8:27 pm

      That's a very good point—a lot of really nasty stuff can come hidden with software. In general, a good anti-virus program will be a big help, and only downloading the things that you need from very highly trusted sources will significantly reduce the chances that you're going to be surveilled.

      Although, as you point out, a lot of the software that we use every day (including the most popular operating systems in the world, both desktop and mobile) could include a wide range of things that we don't know about. Unfortunately, in many cases we just have to trust the developers. Which is why asking for corporate transparency—even if we can't have source code transparency—is a good idea. The more we tell corporations that our data is important to us, and that we're willing to walk away from their products if we find out that they're giving it away, the better.

  7. dragonfly
    January 27, 2015 at 6:44 pm

    The issue is going to be determined by what is one hiding from. There are degrees of caution one could have. From governments chasing you to obnoxious advertising from Google. For example if my name were really Dan A, I would personally use a pseudonym. The comment section of a web site like this will draw attention. So maybe using a VPN and changing the location occasionally would also help.

    The more we try to hide, the more we bring attention to ourselves, -if somebody is looking for you. All of the ways mentioned above work for now for casual privacy. If the Big boys are looking for you, throw away your smartphone and get an old fashioned cheapo and stay off the net, cuz they will find you fast otherwise. Obviously stay away from social networks. I set up a Facebook account once with a pseudonym, and Facebook closed it because I didn't have friends. I only used it to look up my children's posts. They didn't like that.

    I don't have a good answer for you if you are connected to the web all the time for work, and are stationary. The human cost of all this tech is loss of privacy. I have friends that don't use a phone anymore. They use secure encripted email only when they have to. It all depends on the degree of caution you want to exercise.

    I think this article covers most of the solutions available. Sorry I wasn't more helpful.

    • Dann Albright
      January 27, 2015 at 8:22 pm

      All very interesting points; the only thing I'd disagree with is that a non-smartphone won't do you much good, as intelligence agencies can get the data from where your phone connects to a cell tower, which will give them at the very least a good idea of your location. And there's still metadata to worry about.

      But you're right—the amount of action you take definitely depends on how worried you are about surveillance. If you think you're in danger, there aren't any precautions that are too inconvenient. But if you're just looking to keep Google from logging your websites so that they can't use them to advertise to you, a more minor form of countermeasures is probably sufficient.

      Thanks for bringing all of these things up! Definitely some interesting things to think about.

  8. dragonfly
    January 27, 2015 at 4:30 pm

    All of these are good points. However there is too much attention on hiding when you really stand out like a neon sign. Maybe the best way to remain unobtrusive is to move around a lot. Go fast. Burner phones, or dumb phones. Change location, use different computers and different VPNs. Don't buy anything on Amazon et al. Pay for your email service, 'cause free is not really free.

    Technology is like having a red Lambo and not wanting to be noticed. You don't want to get noticed, buy a Toyota. Or get a bicycle.

    • Dann Albright
      January 27, 2015 at 5:27 pm

      I think moving around a lot is great if you work remotely, don't have a job, are single, or are on the run from the law. :-)

      However, most people don't have the luxury of changing locations all the time and using a bunch of different computers. Also, if technology in a broad sense is a Lamborghini, what qualifies as a Toyota? Or a bike? I'm curious to hear your thoughts on what people who need technology to do their jobs and run their lives should do.

  9. narayanan
    January 27, 2015 at 11:00 am

    Using as little as possible seems the perfect remedy

    • Dann Albright
      January 27, 2015 at 11:03 am

      You're not the first person to suggest that solution to the problem, and I think it would definitely be an effective one . . . but do you really think that's possible? A huge number of people need to use the internet for their jobs, and while they don't NEED to use it for more personal or home-related reasons, they would spend a lot of time making up for losing an efficient way to complete their tasks. I'm sure there are people out there who would be fine cutting their internet usage back by a large factor, but others use it for things that are very important to them.

      What do you think?

    • Realnoid
      January 27, 2015 at 11:58 pm

      Dann Albright - you missed my meaning. Clooney's email to Sony was one of the hacked emails mentioned in the news. The news report mentioned that Clooney's email actually addresses "anyone listening in " or, IOW, anyone hacking/ intercepting the email beyond who it was addressed to. His email said he would love to make a movie regarding the Rupert Murdoch British newspapers that were caught illegally hacking cell phones. Conservative media like Murdoch's is known to make a big deal out of any government overreach or intrusion. It being slightly ironic that they, Murdoch's newspapers, did just that, hacked and intruded into people's private cell phones.

      The Jack Reacher reference did not originate in the novel.
      It was not the best but it was the latest reference that has been made elsewhere in factual reporting. The reason for mentioning it was that US security is not secure.

    • Dann Albright
      January 28, 2015 at 9:28 am

      Oh, I see—so you're saying that Clooney's email didn't originate from him. That's an interesting theory that I haven't heard before! Do you have evidence other than the "anyone listening" addressing? I'm curious about that.

      As for the non-Jack Reacher quote, that's interesting. According to the sources that I just pulled up in a quick search, there are actually close to 1.5 million people with top-secret clearance, though that was in 2013, so there could be fewer now. But I'm not quite sure how that relates to avoiding internet surveillance. It's bad for US security, I agree, but what does that mean for online spying?

    • danniagro
      February 5, 2015 at 10:05 am

      Dan, the point about there being over a million people with clearence to access the data held by the NSA etc, is that if so many can see what is being stored, then it is really not being held securely. This means that criminals or those with other nefarious interests might be able to access it illegally, and this is another powerful arguement for trying to prevent it being collected in the first place, I feel.

    • Dann Albright
      February 5, 2015 at 10:16 am

      Oh, okay—I see what you mean. Are you sure that everyone with top-secret clearance has access to that sort of data? I'm not real familiar with how security clearances work. Even if not everyone can see PRISM and XKeyscore data, you make a good point: that's a lot of people that could see what's been collected. And I have to agree with you; that's a good reason to abolish the practice all together.

      Thanks for clearing that up!

  10. Realnoid
    January 27, 2015 at 9:53 am

    George Clooney was the only smart one in the Sony hack. He actually addressed his email to "anyone out there listening in" in the process of talking about making a movie about Rupert Murdoch and his newspapers hacking peoples phones as well as
    threatening certain politicians that they would be pursued for the rest of their lives if they dared to blow the whistle on them.

    Of course, being conservative means that the Murdoch papers and media are always the 1st to focus on government intrusion hacking away at "freedoms and liberties". The corporate sector has the means to work with or against government, average people, and themselves.

    Then there's the page in the latest Jack Reacher novel saying that in the US there are approximately one million people with top secret clearances and that security in the US is therefore, by necessity, porous and breached, to say the least even apart from
    Ed Snowden.

    • Dann Albright
      January 27, 2015 at 10:53 am

      You're addressing a lot of issues here, and I'm not totally sure I follow where you're going with it. I agree that George Clooney did behave pretty well in the aftermath of the attack; he's a stand-up guy, and he showed it with his response. Too bad he was the only one willing to stand up . . . but now that it's not looking so much like North Korea was behind the hack, I'm not sure if it would have made much of a difference anyway.

      I've never read a Jack Reacher novel—do you think that they're well-researched enough to be trusted on statistics like that? I've never heard anything like that before.

  11. Realnoid
    January 27, 2015 at 9:22 am

    An actual serious question. Let's pretend this is a made up thought experiment or that I'm seriously but harmlessly paranoid. I believe therefore that everything I do is being tracked and managed 24/7. This also means that if I buy from any computer store a designated sales person (a product of my suspicions of course) will go into the stock room, get a model from stock, copy any key numbers that will, not possibly but definitely, enable the machine and me to be tracked. If I buy on-line from, say, a FedEx or computer cafe, the same will somehow someway happen. I can't call a friend and have them do it. I cannot borrow or buy second hand or stolen. I can see myself buying a random off the shelf computer from among many with no one knowing which particular one I'm buying. Haven't seen a store like that. Any suggestions?

    • Dann Albright
      January 27, 2015 at 9:48 am

      Hm . . . that's a tough one. How about buying a computer from a foreign country? Or building your own? Piecing together different parts of a computer isn't very difficult (we have a guide to it here: //, and that would presumably prevent a third party from having a system in place that would monitor you.

      Also, buying second-hand seems like a pretty good way to go, too. You said you can't (or wouldn't be able to) do that, but I'd encourage you, in this situation, to seriously consider it.


  12. Mike BCh
    January 27, 2015 at 7:51 am

    If a person is honest, he should not be afraid of some surveillance. On the contrary, he can always prove that he is innocent, by relying on surveillance cameras, for example. The criminals, that's who don't like it.

    • Dann Albright
      January 27, 2015 at 9:45 am

      Mike, you're not alone in thinking that people who don't have anything to hide have nothing to fear from surveillance. However, that argument has been defeated a number of times. I explain it more in this article here: //

      After reading that, do you still think that only criminals don't like being surveilled?

  13. DoktorThomas™
    January 27, 2015 at 5:13 am

    Avoiding the Net seems much simpler..... ©2015

    • Dann Albright
      January 27, 2015 at 9:43 am

      Yeah, that's definitely one way to go . . . though it's nearly impossible for most people. We need the internet for too many things, including most professions. It'd be awfully hard to be a writer, a manager, or a tradesman without access the internet. Also, while it's a bit outside the scope of this discussion, the idea of curtailing surveillance powers also applies to cell phones, which I'd think you'd definitely need if you didn't use the internet.

  14. Jin
    January 27, 2015 at 2:22 am

    Instead of using encryption etc, why not "overload" the watchers with massive amounts of data - may be tru or maybe fals - when there is too much data, everything stops or at least crawls.

    • jaja
      January 27, 2015 at 5:12 am

      I hear computers are real good at processing MASSIVE amounts of data. You think you'll overload them? Good luck.

    • DoktorThomas™
      January 27, 2015 at 5:20 am

      The government's secret computer that you don't/can't know about in OK. is sixteen miles square. How much do you think it can store?
      More than you can write...
      The has every electric communication of all types stored that have been sent/exchnaged since 1940. Bytes are easily saved. ©2015

    • Dann Albright
      January 27, 2015 at 9:40 am

      Jin, that's an interesting idea, but as the other commenters here have pointed out, governments around the world have access to absolutely massive amounts of computing power. And the rate at which that power is growing is almost certainly greater than the rate at which we can create more content.

    • Dann Albright
      January 27, 2015 at 9:42 am

      DoktorThomas, would you mind posting a link to some evidence of this giant supercomputer? I've never heard of it before, but if there are theories about it, I'd love to hear them. Also, while they do certainly have a lot of data, I can't imagine that it's every electronic communication since 1940—while there may be enough storage, I have to think that the cost of maintaining something like that would be absolutely astronomical.

  15. Karl K
    January 26, 2015 at 1:32 pm

    For computer Internet security, ALL of the methods described (TOR, VPN, et cetera) ignore the fact that if a government entity wants to spy on you, all they have to do is go to your ISP and with a farcial "court order", force them to allow them to monitor your traffic!
    The only "reasonable" solution is end-to-end encryption -- from the back end of your computer to the front end of a correspondent's computer. That way, if your ISP connection is being monitored, all they can see is gobbledegook.

    • dragonmouth
      January 26, 2015 at 1:47 pm

      "The only “reasonable” solution is end-to-end encryption"
      Of course the irony or the paradox of that is that by hiding all your traffic, you'll be sending up a 4th of July rocket announcing your existence and the need for some "special" government attention.

    • Dann Albright
      January 26, 2015 at 3:05 pm


      Yes, end-to-end encryption is definitely the best way to go. And while Tor and VPNs might not provide end-to-end functionality, wouldn't you say that it's better than nothing? One thing that I learned at a privacy-focused event last year was that the more difficult it is to capture data, the more expensive it is in time and manpower, the more the government will think twice about going for it without good reason.

      Also, do you think that end-to-end encryption for most things is possible? While I know it's available for email and chat, it seems like it would be really difficult to use it for all internet activity.

    • Dann Albright
      January 26, 2015 at 3:05 pm

      dragon, you make a good point here. Encryption does put a target on your back, but that's why so many people are trying to get everyone they know to use encrypted tech. If everyone is using encrypted communication, it won't be such a red flag anymore, and everyone will be a little safer.

      That's the idea, anyway.

    • dragonmouth
      January 26, 2015 at 7:58 pm

      "That’s the idea, anyway."
      Ay, there's the rub. The government(s) will only broaden their surveillance programs. :-) Considering that the data gathering and analysis is done by computers, broadening the programs will only mean adding processors and storage. Those are cheap.

    • Dann Albright
      January 26, 2015 at 8:05 pm

      Yeah, it's definitely likely that surveillance programs will get bigger. And while a lot of it can be overseen by a computer, I think that there's still a lot of human participation. Computers might be able to look for keywords, but those keywords needs to be analyzed by a person, and that person needs to prioritize their findings and decide whether or not to further pursue a certain person. So I think there'll be a very strong human factor for a long time . . . and humans are expensive. :-)

  16. dragonmouth
    January 25, 2015 at 11:56 pm

    I am not particualrly worried about entities being able to read my email or my posts. What I am worried about is how that data will be sliced and diced and taken out of context to create a totally bogus profile of me. Just because I'm paranoid does not mean that nobody is after me.

    I generally keep my private life private by following one simple rule - Don't put anything on the Internet that I would not want to see on the front page of the local paper. Unfortunately, I break that rule by expressing political opinions that may not be appreciated by The Poweres That Be. They are not treasonous or terrorist but they do not exactly cleave to the party line. :-)

    • Dann Albright
      January 26, 2015 at 3:02 pm

      You're right—there are definitely two sides to this process. There's data collection, and there's data interpretation. And they could result in very different things. That's an interesting way to think about it. Unfortunately, I think the government tries to use that distinction to their advantage, saying "we collect a lot of things, but we don't look at them!" Just because that's the case doesn't make it any less concerning.

      Also, that's a good rule to live by, though quite difficult. Especially if you're interested in expressing political opinions from time to time!