There are lots of reasons you might prefer not to
have every website you visit and email you send logged and recorded
for years to come. I can't think of any why you would. In many countries,
however, internet providers are required by law to do just that.
According to the London
Telegraph, from April 2009 that now
includes all European Union countries. For the tech-minded, here
are the gory details. You can be sure it is being done elsewhere,
legally or otherwise. For a global overview with "heat map,"
you can check out last year's "Electronic Police State"
international rankings here.
Surveillance is even more intense in large corporate or government
environments, where you may also have trouble visiting certain "unapproved"
At the other end of your internet connection, the
same thing may be happening. Browsing and emailing, for example,
usually discloses an "IP address" — the equivalent of
your internet telephone number — which can be traced
to you through your internet provider. Many sites, such as Google,
also build up a profile of your activity based upon your IP address,
"cookies" (data stored from earlier visits), search requests
and other factors, which can be retained indefinitely. Forums and
will often record your IP address along with your comments and retain
them for years.
This was underlined to me some time ago, when I had
a problem with a Google search. In order to proceed, they required
verification by typing in random letters, partially obscured in
an image. After a couple of failed tries, on the third attempt Google
presented me with a word consisting of my name complete with a spelling
mistake peculiar to details held by my internet provider (a large
multinational). At that moment, I was not using any privacy techniques.
Nevertheless, I now have a new provider and often use the powerful,
Individual hackers can be a danger when they identify
your IP address: A 17-year-old boy was recently jailed for what
is known as "Swatting" his online-gaming opponents. According
Register, on multiple occasions, he
obtained their IP addresses and hacked their internet provider for
their personal details. He then called in armed SWAT teams to their
houses by faking ("spoofing") their telephone numbers
in emergency calls.
You should note the low to non-existent standards
of evidence under which the State will dispatch violent military
force against the innocent. In fact, not only did the State effectively
assist him, he was much less guilty when compared to the confiscation,
tasering, torturing and killing of governments everywhere against
their own opponents.
This highlights by far the biggest privacy concern:
Accumulated profiling by Big Brother in order to identify dissenters,
tax escapees and political opponents.
But, there are fairly easy ways to keep "two
sets of books" with your internet provider and also to "anonymize"
your site visits, posts, chat, voice, video and email. It all starts
with a clean computer:
Practical Privacy — Stage 1
Many PCs are riddled with viruses, spyware, toolbars,
"helpers" and weighed down with bloated "security"
suites. If you have a PC, then do what I have done for many hundreds
of customers in recent years: First, get rid of Norton/Mcafee
or similar bloat-ware and restart. Next run "msconfig"
as in this tutorial
(Vista users just type "msconfig" in the Search box).
The best and leanest antivirus is currently the free
You will also need weekly or monthly manual scans with Spybot
(un-tick all options except Desktop Icon on install). Do a scan
with both and that's it. In case of a stubborn problem try a Malwarebytes
one-off scan. If problems persist, then a backup and system reinstall
is needed. Note that you don't need a complicated firewall because
your router acts as a double hardware firewall, plus there is an
adequate built-in Windows firewall anyway.
With a clean, fast computer the first and easiest
privacy step is to clear it of data retained from previous activity.
This can be available through the internet to others via things
like cookies and add-ons like Java or Flash. You can clear it in
On a PC, get the free CCleaner.
Un-tick everything except Desktop and Start menu shortcuts on install.
Ideally, run CCleaner just before and just after any private browsing
is required. The standard settings are fine – except be sure everything
is un-ticked under Options>Advanced. Expect the first run to
take a while and to be surprised how much junk there was. After
that it will usually be instant. For an equivalent, Mac users can
use free programs like "Onyx" or "MacJanitor."
With this security setup and a little care about
what you click on, you can have years of trouble-free computing,
with the basics in place for some privacy.
Practical privacy – Stage 2
The next step is to obscure your activity from your
internet provider, and to obscure your identity at sites you visit.
There are several ways of doing this – most requiring technical
knowledge of things like "proxies" and "shell accounts."
But there are easier ways:
In an emergency, one obvious way is to drive around
with a laptop and find a public or open
internet connection. This would normally
only reveal your general geographic location. If you are not doing
anything to attract, for example, SWAT teams and are not hogging
a lot of bandwidth, then you are harming no one. Long-range
wireless is also an option.
One other way would be to use the TOR
anonymous internet system. The only problem here is the unreliable
browsing speed. It is quite easy to install and try, though.
For a permanent, reliable solution you need access
to a Virtual Private Network or "VPN" service. VPNs are
often used by businesses to securely log in to office networks from
home. A VPN privacy service can completely obscure your IP address
from sites you visit, while obscuring and encrypting the content,
sites and servers you visit from your internet provider. Basically,
it will tunnel everything you do to another computer in another
part of the world of your choice. It does mean trusting the VPN
provider to some degree (the best keep no logs) and it does mean
paying a subscription. But you will get fast or even full internet
speeds – in my own case, reliable enough to do chart-based
Both Mac and Windows users can easily connect using
the basic VPN software already built in. Or, there is a better solution
called "OpenVPN." Versions of this on the Mac include
"Viscosity" and Tunnelblick.
The service provider will supply instructions.
One VPN service I use is Perfect-Privacy,
with multiple servers around the world. I also like the very low-cost
in Zurich. Bear in mind that lag will increase the further away
you are from the VPN server. There are many others (metropipe, cryptohippie,
xerobank, secretsline etc.).
One technical warning about "DNS leaks":
These can bypass your VPN so that although actual content is secure,
the names of sites visited could be visible and therefore logged.
The fix does require extra steps but is reasonably easy: full instructions
and a test here.
With a VPN setup, you can be less concerned about
trusting email providers and using encryption. Just get a free web-based
email address in another country and always use the VPN to access
it. However, be careful not to include identifiable personal info
in the email content.
In addition, for moderately sensitive email content,
both sender and recipient could use temporary Hushmail
accounts. Or, learn to use highly secure PGP
encryption with any email provider. Other
free options include Mailvault
(with easy PGP built in) the secure (but US-based) Cryptomail,
Subscription options include Neomailbox
However, unless you encrypt your own email, remember you are placing
trust in an unknown service provider. Rumors abound,
for example, that the popular Safe-Mail
is a Mossad "honeypot" – though I have seen no real
evidence of this.
Voice and Chat Privacy
Because a VPN connection is a secure tunnel (at
least, from you to the VPN server) there can be less concern also
with voice, video and chat services. However, here are some extra
For extra Instant Messaging security, try OTR.
For voice and video content there is ZPhone
(at both ends) in conjunction with Yahoo messenger or Apple iChat.
Skype will conceal content from casual eavesdroppers, but many suspect
and your activity is logged by their software. Gizmo5
may be an alternative with its internal encryption, plus it will
work with Zphone. SIP
Communicator is a one-stop secure video/IM/chat
solution with encryption (including ZPhone) built in.
But do be aware that unless you use a VPN, voice
and email encryption only prevents wiretapping of content and does
not prevent tracking who you are and who your contacts are.
For interaction with regular telephones you really
need a "SIP" account — which is a bit like an email address
for voice/video. These can also be assigned a regular phone number.
Get a free SIP account from IPTel,
will also give you a free incoming and outgoing UK telephone number.
You can get a free US incoming number from IPKall.
An incoming local number could be forwarded and used in conjunction
with an "offshore" outgoing provider (e.g., Link2Voip,
for call records privacy.
The popular but US-based CallWithUs
offers calls (only) via their own OpenVPN connection, as do Brujula.
offer "IPSec" VPN access for calls, useable with some
dedicated routers, from computer desktops, with the iPhone/iPod
Touch, and with most Windows CE smart-phones and PDAs (IPaq, HTC
If you do not have an incoming phone number for your
SIP account, with some providers you can still be called using the
service. This service has local numbers in many countries and you
are contactable via an "extension" number after the local
number has been dialed.
Making calls through a VPN does reduce the need for
call encryption. But, on top of that, free software like Qutecom
have end-to-end encryption built in. SIP
Communicator includes encryption not only
for SIP calls, but also secure video/IM/chat. XLite
does not include encryption, but is very popular and will work with
Zphone. Also see Zoiper
for both IAX and SIP.
A SIP account will also work without the need for
a computer via special standalone "IP
phones" or with regular telephones
adapters. These plug in to your home broadband
router. But if you want them to go through a VPN, there are then
two options: You could set up "Internet
Connection Sharing" on a dedicated
computer with a VPN connection. Or (for the tech-minded only) here
is the setup for a specially modified home router.
For offices, the Draytek
2820 looks like a one-stop broadband/VPN/SIP
Mobile Call Privacy
When on the move, Wi-Fi and SIP capable
mobile phones, PDAs, or netbooks can offer more privacy than a regular
landline or mobile call, even without a VPN connection. But it is
possible to use a VPN through public wireless networks from many
The iPhone and the iPod
Touch offer an easy solution by including
VPN software. The Apple app store offers SipPhone
to make calls. Third-party offerings like Fring and Gizmo5 also
work, but with less privacy and more lag (search for Youtube tutorials).
You will need a microphone
set for the iPod Touch. "Jailbreaking" the iPhone/iPod
Touch opens up other options, including Siphon
– obtainable through the alternative "Cydia" download
source. 2G iPod Touch models can easily be set free in
less than 5 minutes, older models in less
than a minute. You can be sure of a solution from the same sources
after new updates.
But overall, a tiny netbook could be the stylish,
all-in-one privacy option for home, office and on the move. For
voice calls, it might be most convenient when used with a handset,
or linked via Bluetooth (wireless) to a headset
or mobile phone. You might consider the excellent Asus
EeePC 1000HE with 9.5-hour battery life,
or the popular
Of course, one big problem – and partly the reason
I have suggested many free services – is a lack of internet payment
privacy. This has strengthened the now pervasive custom of demanding
personal, private information with every transaction. Here are some
solutions to look at:
In the US, you could check out the various
Cards available. While in the UK and Europe,
(e.g., for Amazon vouchers), UKash, and the Prime
Card or Payzone
prepaid debit cards are the nearest equivalents to cash online I
have found. UnLinq
is a worldwide (US-based) card option. There are also "virtual
card" resellers with varying degrees of privacy. Debitcards4all
currently have a good reputation at the talkgold
forum, where you can also find other available options. For sending
and receiving small payments, consider ePayarea.
You could also look at gold- or fiat-backed e-currencies.
However, stability is a concern as is the intrusive information
demanded by most exchangers – even if you pay in cash. Of all
e-currencies, the soundest may be Pecunix. The most widely accepted
– since the fall of e-gold — is probably the fiat-based Liberty
For lightweight privacy, note that in many countries
you can add an additional cardholder name to an existing card account.
Under the present system, if you want to avoid identity
theft, hacker attacks, profiling and more, you need to be cautious
about giving out personal information:
Wherever possible, refuse, confuse or completely
separate your name, address, date of birth and any other identifying
numbers. Understand that you do not have a moral obligation to help
a stranger track you against your will. Legally, at least in common
law countries, you can call yourself whatever you like. I also do
not recommend you supply, for example, your actual date of birth – just to open a free email account.
Some online privacy suggestions:
Always "enhance" your date of birth;
If you must supply your name or, for a delivery, your home address,
then not both together;
Make use of junk email services like Mailinator
If possible, don't register – use logins from bugmenot.
Create throw-away email addresses for minor online registration/confirmation;
Maintain separate, completely isolated email addresses for important
Use aliases or alternate spellings of your surname and make use
of your middle name/s;
Google multiple occupancy or serviced office addresses when a verifiable
address is demanded;
Make sure any supplied address matches the VPN country you are using;
Consider setting up a mail-drop – near and/or far;
Develop alternate signatures for forms, packages etc. and compartmentalize
Incorporating an LLC or using a business name can have privacy advantages;
Make special efforts regarding the personal details held by your
ISP and/or Telco;
Consider posting well-wrapped cash or money orders for purchases.
Whenever supplying information online, assume it
will be incorporated into a database forever. Assume that this will
then be incorporated into a bigger search
engine that merges multiple
databases with all information about you.
Assume that this will be available instantly to friend or foe, for
free or a small fee.
Data Backup Privacy
Special steps are needed for storing and transporting
data privately, including through customs checkpoints, where your
laptop could be seized:
Tiny micro SD cards are currently available
up to at least 16 Gb. These can be tucked into a lapel, collar,
hair clip etc. Or, an ideal, discreet and radiation proof solution
would be inside a covert
coin. Another option is to encrypt your
data and upload it to the very useful, free Stashbox
service, which will immediately return a web address to download
it from later. Of course, there is always the old, "send it
as an email attachment to yourself" method for smaller data
Some might argue that actual criminals or terrorists
could use these techniques to hide themselves. Possibly, but more
likely they have other ways – like hacking in and controlling other
people's computers, using other people's credit cards, and letting
someone else take the blame. Either way, why should we all go into
slavery, just to be "protected" from them?
Remember that governments are not omnipotent, though
they would like to be. In reality, they are relatively few in number
and there are many practical, economic and technological limitations.
Also keep in mind sheer information overload – there can only be
so many watchers.
But there is a real threat, particularly if you
are targeted. In these perilous times I hope these privacy techniques
will encourage you to speak out more freely and help you maintain
more financial and personal security.
Green [send him mail] was
born in the UK and currently works from home there as an independent
emergency callout specialist for home and small business computer
users. He is married with five children – all at home –
and the three of school age are homeschooled. Over the years he
has also traded the financial futures markets and worked as a one-stop
advertising copywriter/ voice-over artist/ music and jingle producer.