It seems hard to imagine a time before we knew about the US government’s digital surveillance programs. It was only back in 2013 that, thanks to Edward Snowden, our lack of digital privacy became all too apparent.
But it wasn’t just the authorities spying on us. Tech companies, like Google and Facebook, all the way to financial institutions and advertisers have played their part in eroding our privacy.
It doesn’t have to be this way. If you value your privacy, which you absolutely should, then there are a host of great resources to help you reverse the tide.
1. Privacytools.io: Privacy-Friendly Software Options
Facebook is one of the most popular services in the world, with over 2.2 billion monthly active users. However, if the Cambridge Analytica scandal showed us anything, it was that Facebook doesn’t care about your privacy, no matter what they say.
Social networks, productivity tools, email providers, and even your operating system all collect your data, often without your explicit consent. We continue to use them though because, well, what’s the alternative? That’s where Privacy Tools steps in.
This community-run website suggests privacy-focused alternatives to major software and digital tools. Each category comes with three recommendations and honorable mentions, covering a wide range of software. Most sections even come equipped with related information and further reading.
There is a slight tinfoil-hat overtone, but as recent events have shown, they have good reason to be suspicious. There’s even a disclaimer near the top of the site which details why you shouldn’t use a US-based service.
If you’ve ever spent time reading about VPNs, you’ll have noticed that many people are deeply suspicious of most recommendations. Privacy Tools steers clear of this accusation—its suggestions are community-driven and discussed at length in the Privacy Tools subreddit.
The site itself is even open-source, with the code available on GitHub.
2. Tactical Tech: Exposing the Erosion of Privacy
Pew research from 2015 found that while 74 percent of American adults feel that it is very important who can gather data about them, only 9 percent made changes to prevent their activities being monitored. That is a massive disconnect between those who value privacy and those who act on those beliefs.
The not-for-profit organization Tactical Tech has spent since 2003 working hard to close that gap.
The Berlin-based group supports rights activists around the world, guiding them on how to use digital technologies to further their work. Since 2017, their Tactical Tech Strategy has given a renewed focus to privacy and security concerns. Each year they provide training to over 2,000 activists around the world while engaging with the general public through workshops and interactive events.
In late-2016, through a partnership with Mozilla, they opened The Glass Room, a “tech-store with a twist” in New York City. At first glance, it looked like a regular consumer-technology store, full of the latest phones and gadgets. However, once inside, visitors were put face-to-face with the data they generated:
The Glass Room popup was open for three weeks before transferring to London’s West End in October 2017. After experiencing the creeping surveillance all around, visitors could visit the Data Detox Bar for tips on how to prevent the seemingly endless leak of information.
3. Asher Wolf: The Origins of the CryptoParty
Australia’s relationship with privacy is more complicated than most. Successive governments have introduced legislation that undermines their citizen’s privacy, despite public outcry.
In 2015, the government passed a bill which required ISPs to collect and store customer metadata for two years. Four years previously they introduced an amendment to existing legislation which enabled foreign governments to access Australian citizen’s telecommunications data.
We’ve become familiar with encryption and security tools like TOR over the past few years, right? But in 2011 they were still relatively unknown. Uncomfortable with the situation unfolding in Australia, a Melbourne-based journalist under the pseudonym Asher Wolf decided to do something about it.
I want a HUGE Melbourne crypto party! BYO devices, beer, & music. Let's set a time and place :) Who's in?
— Asher Wolf (@Asher_Wolf) August 22, 2012
In August 2012, she tweeted that she would be holding a crypto party where everyone could share encryption tools and privacy techniques. The CryptoParty went viral, inspiring similar events all over the world.
CryptoParties found renewed interest in 2014 after Wired reported that Edward Snowden had hosted one in Hawaii, six months before he leaked the NSA documents.
Wolf continues to be heavily involved in digital security and privacy, writing regularly for publications including The Guardian and Crikey. She also set up a Patreon page with a goal of gaining 500 supporters before writing a book on the furor surrounding her social media posts.
Asher Wolf’s activism spawned a global movement helping others to improve their security. Her efforts proved that one person really can make a difference. If it piqued your interest, check out the CryptoParties location list for ways to get involved. Not all locations have a local movement yet, but the site offers plenty of information on how to host your own CryptoParty.
How to Protect Your Privacy: 3 Essential Tips
Activism isn’t for everyone, but fortunately there are things you can do right from your computer to start protecting your privacy.
An excellent place to start is your browser. As most of our internet traffic goes through the browser, it stores an enormous amount of personal information, all accessible to anyone with access to your computer. If that causes you concern, then consider switching to a more private browser.
Speaking of Google, you can leave the search-giant behind in favor of DuckDuckGo, the privacy-friendly search engine. If you are passionate about protecting your privacy, it may be worth overhauling your entire digital life. There are plenty of ways to put privacy and security front and center.