By Tobias van Schneider Published November 14, 2016
This is probably an unusual article for me to write, but in the recent light of political changes and many other reasons I feel inclined to write about this topic.
The reason I particularly speak to my fellow designer friends is because when talking to the majority of them in real life I notice very few take online privacy & safety seriously. And I get it, it's a boring topic and especially for the not so technical people it just seems confusing.
So if you've never heard of 2-Step authentification, VPN or Tor, please continue reading. If you already got your shit together, you can ignore this article, but please forward it to friends that might find this useful.
My intention with this article is to keep it simple with a focus on the basics. Keeping you safe online is not only important for yourself, but also for your friends. The more you protect yourself, the more your protect the people you interact with on a daily basis.
In this new world, online surveillance has become the norm. And if you believe you have nothing to hide, that's usually because you just don't know yet, or because you are privileged enough to not feel the impact. And if you're one of those who thinks they have nothing to hide, you might want to read this.
In this article I'd like to give you a few little tips of what you can do to be more safe online. To protect yourself, your family and your friends. I'll try to keep it simple, no technical bullshit and we try to not go down the paranoid rabbit hole too much, I promise!
Step 1: Enable 2-factor authentification
I'm always surprised how few people actually make use of it. Two step or two factor authentification simply just ads another layer of security on top of the service you're using, for example your E-Mail account.
Basically how it works is that you need two pieces of the puzzle in order to access your account, instead of just one which is your password. As an Example: After entering your password, you need to enter a code that will get send to your phone. This code is usually only valid for a couple seconds.
So in order to access your account, someone would need to have your password plus access to your phone. In some cases this temporary code is generated by an app that you install, or it can even be a little device, but most online services rely on connecting your phone number.
If you want to find out if your service is offering a 2-factor auth feature, this website might be helpful. But most big services such as Gmail, Facebook, Dropbox etc. give you the option to enable 2-step auth somewhere in the settings.
BONUS TIP: Make sure to also contact your phone provider and tell them to leave a note in your profile to NEVER give away any information via phone when someone calls them. There have been several cases where hackers called someones phone provider, and requested to send them a new SIM card. (which basically gives them access to your phone and makes 2-factor useless)
Step 2: Use a password manager
When I talk with most of my friends I'm always surprised how few of them use strong passwords. Mostly because they use one that is easy to remember and convenient to type in.
Please do me and everyone around you a favor, use a password manager such as 1Password or Dashlane. Use it not only to store a DIFFERENT password for each service you use, but also use it to generate passwords that are long and complicated.
Step 3: Use a VPN Service
But how does a VPN work?
To keep it simple, let's say your computer has a unique nickname (the IP address, kinda like your license plate). And when you browse the web, pretty much everyone knows what you do, and where you are doing it from because your IP address can be tracked down to your real physical address.
So basically, everyone, from hackers, the government and your Internet Provider can look at everything you do, and ultimately track it down to you personally. It's like driving a car naked with a registered license plate on your forehead. If you do something stupid (and even if not) people will know about it.
Using a VPN is like driving a car with a license plate that isn't really yours, and one that is changing every day.
It works like this: You connect to a VPN server (somewhere around the world) and then this VPN service acts like as if it would be you. So right now, if you would visit a website without a VPN, this website would track your IP address & location. If you would be connected to a VPN, you still have a IP address & location, but it's the one from a server in China for example.
It means, with a VPN I'm completely anonymous. On top if it, the communication between me and the VPN server is encrypted.
Lets look at the benefits of a VPN service
A VPN keeps your computer & physical location private and hidden, away from hackers, the government or even advertisers.
Your information & communication will be encrypted, which makes it harder especially for people on public WiFi's to steal your information. Just think about doing your online banking on a public WiFi in a coffeeshop. Without VPN, that's like screaming out your bank account information out loud for everyone to hear.
Because a VPN sort of gives you a new identity, you can can experience a more open internet. The internet of how it's supposed to be. Some countries or Internet Providers block certain websites based on your location, but because VPN makes it look like you're suddenly coming from the moon, it will work.
Most social networks and other websites track most of your behavior online in order to sell it to advertising companies. VPN helps you to keep your shit private. This might mean less tailored advertising, but also less information for the big corporations about you.
Okay, I'm in! What VPN service should I use?
There are many VPN services out there, and there are a few things we need:
A VPN should be installed on ALL of your devices. (desktop, laptop, smartphone)
A VPN should not influence your internet speed. It needs to be a fast one.
A VPN service should NOT track any browsing data, that would defeat the purpose.
A VPN service should ideally NOT be based in a country that is part of the "Five Eyes" program, which include Australia, Canada, New Zealand, UK and the USA.
You must know that any activity on networks such as Facebook, WhatsApp or Google are tracked and will always be traced back to you. This is not only the nature of these products, but they're all bound to the US law. Use these networks wisely. Post whatever you want, but keep your private conversations private by using a VPN connection & a service that doesn't give away your data. (more about that further down in this article)
Here are a couple VPN that you might like: (good VPNs generally are not free)
PRO: Very friendly, especially for non-techy people
CONS: Based on Canada, tracks some user data for internal use
PRO: One of the best, if not the best & secure VPN service, based in Italy
CONS: A little difficult to use for beginners
PRO: One of the best, no logs, based in Panama
CONS: Little more pricey, Speed not as fast as others
BONUS TIP: All of this can also be achieved by using a browser called "Tor" which is free. Theoretically, a VPN service or using Tor do the same things. Technically they're slightly different because Tor uses many different computers (they call it nodes) in between you and the website you're visiting. As a result, using Tor makes everything very slow. I recommend to only use Tor if really needed, or if you're doing something that needs an extra layer of security. But for daily use, I'd not recommend it.
Step 4: Use Signal for communication
The majority of our communication either happens through networks that don't pay much attention to encryption, or it happens on platforms that are famous for giving away private information to the government and advertisers. For example: We all know that using Facebook or Google products means that we knowingly share our private thoughts & conversations on these networks. Generally there is nothing wrong with this, as long as we're aware that this is the case.
However, sometimes there are conversations that shouldn't be shared via email, or via Facebook's Messenger service. For these cases there is Signal.
I recommend using Signal for your close friends, and especially for your most private conversations. Facebook, or any other big corporations that sells your information to advertisers or shares it with the government should have no right to access it.
I know getting friends on a new messenger is annoying, but all I'm saying is: Keep using your regular WhatsApp, FB Messenger for daily use, but slowly try to move your more important conversations to a messenger such as Signal. And don't forget, this isn't just about protecting you, but also your friends you communicate with.
Step 5: Cover your cameras
You might think I'm extra paranoid right now, but think of it this way. Most people think it's crazy that there is a camera on each street corner, but at the same time they point a camera at themselves almost around the clock with their front facing camera on their phone.
Every time you look into your phone, you're pointing a camera straight at your face without even really realizing it. And with two cameras on your phone, you even point one at your surroundings. The same goes for the camera on your Macbook, or iMac.
Most people think the camera is only on when the little LED light is lightning up. Well, fun fact, it's software that is telling the camera to turn on the LED. It's a feature, not a rule. Which means, the camera can be turned on and can be used without you even knowing.
Just cover your camera with a big enough sticker that you can easily peel off every time you need your camera. If you photograph a lot with your phone, at least cover the "selfie" camera with a sticker or something.
As of microphone: This is a little harder. There is an app called Micro Snitch which essentially tracks your microphone use and alerts you when a software is accessing your microphone without you knowing it. Otherwise, you could also just use a dummy plug (just cut off the plug of an old microphone) that you plug into your audio jack while you're not using it. This will make your computer think an external microphone is connected.
But even this could be bypassed since your computer has an internal microphone.
The thing is: If you would ask something "to speak to you in private" and then you do it with a Macbook, two phones and a Google Home or Amazon Alexa in the same room, the conversation is most certainly not really private.
Please forward this article to a friend, help your friends stay safe.
PS: I kept this article simple & easy to understand. If you really want to dig deeper into this, there are better articles. This article is meant to give you a basic understanding of online security & online privacy. There is always more you can do, but most of it is obviously inconvenient for daily use.