The Five Days of Privacy -- Day 5: Summary and Simple Steps

December 22, 2016
Bill Fitzgerald Director, Privacy Initiative

CATEGORIES Privacy Evaluation Initiative

While today is the final day of our Five Days of Privacy, the strategies we discuss in this series of posts can and should be used year-round. In describing different ways to protect our privacy and security, we focused on elements that are freely available and realistic for people who aren't technology professionals. In the long term, we need to carefully assess what we want to protect and why, but in this post we summarize some easy steps pulled from the recommendations we discussed earlier this week.

For people interested in the details, we covered these topics on Days One through Four:

Conversations about privacy and security often focus on technology and give scant attention to the human, non-technological factors that affect personal privacy. In this brief post, we will cover some of the personal choices we can make and technical options we can use to take control over what we share and with whom we share it. This post is not comprehensive, but it provides some clear steps we all can take. We also attempt to ground the choices and options we recommend with additional context. When we talk about protecting our privacy, we need to consider what we're protecting -- and from whom we're protecting it.

Simple Steps

When we discuss privacy, we often become too focused on the tools rather than on the behavioral shifts required to use the tools well. At the same time, when discussing how to improve privacy and security, we often get stuck in the details and fail to acknowledge that we all can do simple things to increase the control we have over our privacy. This post goes into detail well beyond these simple steps, but using these steps as a starting point would be a marked improvement for most of us.

Easy, free steps to protect our privacy start with using these browser add-ons when you browse the web:

Use alternatives to Google for search: Use Duck Duck Go, StartPage, and/or Disconnect.me. These search engines minimize tracking and, when used in conjunction with add-on tracking blockers, help sidestep issues related to filter bubbles.

Whenever possible, set up two-factor authentication to protect accounts.

When using your phone or tablet, these free steps can increase your control over your privacy:

  • Use Signal to send texts and make voice calls.
  • Turn off wireless, Bluetooth, and location services when you leave your home. Only turn them on when you need them.
  • If you use an iOS-based device, use Firefox Focus to block tracking.

Take these steps that are slightly more complex and still free:

  • Block JavaScript (adds additional protection but can add additional complexity; see options for both Firefox and Chrome).
  • Use Tor when browsing for sensitive information.
  • Delete cookies from your browser.

Try three additional options that add privacy protection but are not free:

  • Use a virtual private network, or VPN, when browsing the internet from your computer, phone, or tablet.
  • Use a privacy screen. This will help prevent people from reading over your shoulder.
  • Use Spider Oak for encrypted cloud-based file storage.

A final step we all can take involves cleaning up the old files we have in our online file storage and deleting old emails we have stored online. No one needs to be a data hoarder. Setting up a time each month to delete emails and files we no longer need, and to archive items we don't have an immediate need for, helps minimize the risk of old information becoming compromised.

Conclusion

It's easy to feel powerless when it comes to protecting our privacy. Companies, political organizations, and governments have a head start, and the fight to regain our privacy is often marked by distinct information asymmetry, where the organizations collecting, sharing, and storing our data know more about us than we know about them. However, as the Five Days of Privacy demonstrate, we have options. There are a broad range of concrete steps we can take now, and most of these steps are free and pretty low-tech.

As we continue to reclaim our rights to privacy, part of our work is normalizing behavior that protects privacy. If one person out of a thousand uses a VPN, that individual will stand out. If 200 people out of a thousand use a VPN, we begin to get some safety in numbers. Additionally, as more people use more privacy-protecting behaviors, we reduce the value of the data that is collected. If we pair privacy-protecting behavior with studying the companies that want to collect and use our information, we reduce the current state of information asymmetry. Reclaiming privacy is a choice. Sometimes it's not a convenient choice, but flossing, exercise, and eating well aren't always easy either. But when we make protecting our privacy a choice as an individual, we make it easier to protect ourselves and our communities.


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