Introduction - Take Control of Your Online Privacy (1.1) (2014)

Take Control of Your Online Privacy (1.1) (2014)


“A book about online privacy? That’ll be pretty short!” my friend joked. It was his way of saying, “We both know there’s no such thing as privacy on the Internet.”

He’s not far from the truth, but to be fair, the illusion of privacy extends far beyond the world of computers and networks.

If you want complete privacy, go live in a remote cave without any electronics. Don’t build a fire, because the smoke could give away your location. Never step outside, because a satellite or a passing drone might snap your picture. And avoid all human contact, because you never know who might be a spy. I hope you packed plenty of food, water, and clothing, too—you won’t be getting any more!

In other words, there’s essentially no such thing as total privacy, online or otherwise. People have to interact with each other to survive, and every interaction reveals something about each participant.

I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t want it any other way. I like having family and friends who know me well, and who can get in touch with me whenever they want (or need) to. I like sharing thoughts and opinions with a wider audience online. And I like the convenience of using my computer, phone, or tablet to communicate, find directions, and make purchases anywhere in the world. All these things involve revealing information about myself, so I wouldn’t want complete privacy.

And yet, the Internet turns many of our everyday assumptions about privacy upside down. If I’m at home, I can close the curtains and feel reasonably confident that whatever I say or do inside my house won’t be seen or heard by anyone else unless I (or a family member) choose to reveal it. Not so with electronic communications. Whether I’m sending email, browsing the Web, or doing a video chat with a friend, the only safe assumption I can make is that strangers might be able to see that information—now or in the future.

Once something has traveled over the Internet in any way, it’s potentially out there forever—and potentially public. You can delete a file from your computer, but once data has gone into the cloud, there’s never a guarantee that all copies of it have been eternally expunged. In fact, it’s far more likely that any given piece of data on the Internet will live on indefinitely. Not only that, but data tends to escape even strong restraints—hence the saying “information wants to be free.”

To be brutally honest, someone who wants badly enough to learn what you’ve transmitted or received on the Internet can probably do so, given enough time, effort, and skill. Part of the reason for this book is to explain how your words, personal information, and activities could become known to individual strangers or even the public—and that knowledge may lead you to make different choices about how you use the Internet. But I’m not saying you must give up any hope of basic privacy. On the contrary, common-sense strategies—the Internet equivalent of drawing the curtains and locking your door—can significantly reduce the risk of having your personal information fall into unwelcome hands. And, when you have more sensitive or valuable data to protect, you can take appropriately stronger measures.

Of course, there are often trade-offs—you may lose convenience, valuable social interaction, and even (paradoxically) personal safety if you choose to keep certain information private. For example, the same technology that can reveal your whereabouts to advertisers could also help someone trying to rescue you during a natural disaster or other emergency. Privacy cuts both ways.

That’s why I don’t recommend attempting to lock down all electronic communication, all the time. You need the curtains open to see the sunlight, and you need the open Internet too.

This book isn’t a guide for the paranoid—or for people with outrageously sensitive or scary secrets to protect. It’s a book for ordinary people with ordinary privacy needs. You want to go about your business, enjoying the many benefits of modern technology without worrying that someone is snooping on you all the time—whether to sell you something or for more sinister reasons. That’s what I plan to help you do, regardless of whether you use a Mac or PC, iOS or Android device, set-top box, cell phone, or any of a thousand other network-enabled gadgets.

I focus more on general principles than on nitpicky settings, particular apps, or elaborate technological rituals. I offer examples and pointers to more information as appropriate, but I don’t dwell on minutiae. The lack of detailed, step-by-step instructions may come as a surprise to some readers, so let me spell out my reasons:

· Privacy settings are a matter of choice. There’s no single right answer; each person’s decisions about what information to keep private and how to do so will be different from the next person’s.

· Each app, operating system, and device has its own way of doing things. Spelling out how to configure the privacy settings in every email client, Web browser, telephony app, and other Internet-connected software—on every version of OS X, Windows, iOS, Android, and other operating systems—would take hundreds of dull pages. And all those instructions would go out of date as soon as the next software or hardware update appears!

· I don’t want to give you a false sense of security. Although you can certainly take steps to dramatically increase your privacy, I don’t want you to think that some magical combination of software and settings will keep your online activities completely and permanently private. Knowledge and vigilance go a long way, however.

Think of this book as a primer on the things that affect your online privacy. It tells you what’s going on, how it pertains to you, and why you might care. More than that, it puts privacy issues in perspective. If you feel overwhelmed by privacy concerns, you can take control of your online privacy by replacing paranoia and guesses with knowledge and smart choices.

Because I live in the United States, many of my examples involve things I know or suspect to be the case here. But even though laws and policies vary from country to country, nearly everything I say here is applicable in some fashion to anyone in the world.