We talk a lot about privacy on the net nowadays. Some claim that privacy is dead, and you just have to cope with it. Some are slightly less pessimistic. But all agree that our new cyber-society will redefine and reduce what we once knew as personal privacy.
The privacy threat is not monolithic. There are actually many different kinds of privacy threats and they are sometimes mixed up. So let’s set this straight and have a look at the three major classes of privacy.
This is about controlling what data you share with your family, spouse, friends, colleagues etc. Tools for doing this are passwords on web accounts, computers and mobile devices, as well as your privacy settings in Facebook and other social media.
This is the fundamental level of privacy that most of us are aware of already. When this kind of privacy is discussed, it is usually about Facebook privacy settings and how to protect your on-line accounts against hackers. Yes, protection against hacking is actually a sort of privacy issue too.
Who knows most about your life? You, your spouse or Facebook? Chances are that the service providers you use have the most comprehensive profile on you. At least if we only count data that is stored in an organized and searchable way. This profile may be a lot wider than what you have shared yourself. Google knows what you Google for and your surfing habits are tracked and blended into the profile. The big data companies also try to include as much as possible of your non-digital life. Credit card data, for example, is low-hanging fruit that tells a lot about us.
But what exactly are they doing with that data? It’s said that if you aren’t paying for the product, then you ARE the product. The multitude of free services on the net is made possible by business models that utilize the huge database. Marketing on the service provider’s own page is the first step. Then they sell data to other marketing companies or run embedded marketing. And it gets scary when they start to sell data to other companies too. Like someone who consider employing you or who need to figure out if you’re a high-risk insurance customer.
The main problem with provider privacy is that there aren’t any simple tools to guard you. The service provider can use data in their systems freely no matter what kind of password you use to keep outsiders out. The only way to master this is to control what data they get on you, and your own behavior is what matters here. But it is hard to live a normal cyber-life and fight the big-data companies. I have posted some advice about Facebook and plan to come back to other aspects of the issue in later posts.
The security and privacy of Internet is to a large extent enforced by legislation and trust, not by technical methods like encryption. But don’t expect the law to protect you if you do a crime. Authorities can break your privacy if there is a justified need for it. This can be a good compromise that guards both our privacy and security, as long as the authorities are trustworthy.
But what happens if they aren’t? Transparency and control are after all things that make the work harder for authorities, so they don’t like it. And a big threat, like terrorism for example, can easily be misused to expand their powers far beyond what’s reasonable. Authority privacy really becomes an issue when the working mode changes from requesting data on selected targets to siphoning up a broad stream of data and storing it for future use. There has been plenty of revelations recently showing that this is exactly what has happened in the US.
There can be many problems because of this. It is, first of all, apparent that data collected by US is misused. The European Union and United Nations are probably not very dangerous terrorist organizations, but still they rank high on the target list. Data collected by authorities is also supposed to be guarded well and used for our own good only. But keep in mind that a single person, Edward Snowden, could walk out with gigabytes of top secret data. He did the right thing and spoke out when his own ethics couldn’t take it anymore, and that’s why we know about him. But how many secret Snowdens have there been before him? More selfish persons who have exchanged data for a luxury life in some other country without going public. Maybe your data? Are you sure China, Russia or Iran don’t have some of the data that the US authorities have collected about you?
And let’s finally play a little game to remind us about how volatile the world is. Imagine that today’s Internet and computer technology was available in 1920. The Weimar republic, also known as Germany, was blooming in the golden twenties. But Europe was not too steady. The authorities had Word War I in fresh memory and wanted to protect the citizens against external threats. They set up a petabyte-datacenter and stored all mails, Facebook updates, cloud files etc. This was widely accepted as some criminal cases had been solved using the data, and the police was proud to present the cases in media. The twenties passed and the thirties brought depression and new rulers. The datacenter proved to be very useful once again, as it was possible to track everybody who had been in contact with Jews and communists. It also brought a benefit in the war to come because many significant services were located in Germany and foreign companies and state persons had been careless enough to use them. The world map might look different today if this imaginary scenario really had happened.
No, something like that could never happen today, you might be thinking. Well, I can’t predict the future but I bet a lot of people were saying the same in the twenties. So never take the current situation for granted. The world will change, often to the better but sometimes to the worse.
So lack of authority privacy is not something that will hurt you right away in your daily life. Your spouse or friends will not learn embarrassing details about you this way, and it will not drown you in spam. But the long term effect of the stored data is hard to predict and there are plenty of plausible harmful scenarios. This really means that proper privacy legislation and trustworthy authorities is of paramount importance for the Internet. A primary set of personal data is of course needed by the authorities to run society’s daily business. But data exceeding that should only be collected based on a justified suspicion, and not be kept any longer than needed. There need to be transparency and control of this handling to ensure it follows regulations, and to keep up peoples’ trust in the authorities.
So what can I do while waiting for the world to get its act together on authority privacy? Not much, I’m afraid. You could stop using a computer but that’s not convenient. Starting to use encryption extensively is another path, but that’s almost as inconvenient. Technology is not the optimal solution because this isn’t a technical problem. It’s a political problem. Political problems are supposed to be solved in the voting booth. It also helps to support organizations like EFF.
You might know what a VPN (Virtual Private Network) is. But if you’re like many people out there, you probably don’t use one. You should though. And when you finish this blog post, you’ll know why. A VPN is a private network established over the internet. That might sound complicated, so simply put, a VPN provides security for your device’s internet connection. The layer of security VPNs provide is how you make sure that data you send and receive is encrypted and safe from trackers, hackers and anyone else trying to intercept your data while it’s in transit. Companies and schools use VPNs to let people connect to local networks from anywhere. And you can also use a VPN to stay anonymous whether you’re at home, at work or school, or using an untrusted public network. And as an added bonus, of course, a VPN also lets you change your virtual location, which can mean unrestricted access to a whole world of content. So why is online anonymity so important? Who better to answer that than two real Freedome VPN users. And while we can assure you these guys are both real, in keeping with the theme of anonymity, let’s just call them “John” and “Doe”. “Anonymity is important because I really see it as a human right. Like if I’m looking for things that are really personal, I have the right to stay private and keep that information private,” says John, a university student who’s been using Freedome VPN for three months and counting. Doe, who is 29 and in the IT industry, has used VPNs before, but recently switched to F-Secure’s Freedome. For him, using a VPN isn’t just about protecting himself today: it’s an investment in the future. “I’ve never had problems myself, but we know for a fact that there are organizations and people out there right now who are looking to get their hands on our information and identities for whatever reason. This is definitely going to be a bigger problem in the future, and I want to be prepared,” says Doe. Both John and Doe say that most of their friends in the tech industry are using VPNs right now. But unfortunately, there are lots of people out there who aren’t. “I really wish people were more aware of the fact that they’re potentially giving away parts of their identity and privacy every single time they go online without a VPN,” says Doe. John agrees. “If you think about how people are feeding more and more of their personal information into a wider and wider range of sites, services etc., it’s obvious that the potential risks to our privacy are also increasing,” he says. John and Doe definitely know what they’re talking about and we couldn’t agree more. There’s never been a better time to take control of your online anonymity. So check out the Freedome VPN site for videos and more info. And don’t forget to tap or click to get yours! [Image by Blue Coat Photos | Flickr]
What's easier than typing, clicking or even swiping left? For most of us, speaking. Until we can get actual USB ports in our brain, our mouths may be the quickest way to make our our desires known to our devices. And as it Internet of Things develops, we're going to be doing more and more talking to machines, including our thermostat, light bulbs and possibly even our drones. Fans of Siri and the Amazon Echo are already familiar with the benefits of a conversational interface. But, as with any new technology that gains widespread adoption, privacy and security concerns are inevitable. We spoke to F-Secure's Cyber Gandalf Andy Patel about what users of voice-activated technology should know as they make the leap into this newer realm of connectivity that has long been imagined by science fiction visionaries from Philip K. Dick to Star Trek's Gene Roddenberry. So are these voice-activated devices listening all the time? Yes. In order for a device to react to a voice command without the user pressing a button to activate the feature, the device must listen all the time. How could this be used against us? If a device streams voice data to a server for processing, a few privacy and security implications arise. If the data is being streamed in an insecure way, it can be intercepted by a third party. If the speech data is stored insecurely, it can become compromised in the case of a data breach. It can also potentially sold to a third party. Speech is processed into text. That text might be stored, it might be associated with its source, and it could also be leaked. When the speech processing service returns data to the device that requested the processing, it could also be intercepted. Are the any real privacy concerns for owners of voice-activated devices? Some companies outsource their speech recognition services and cannot properly account for the processes and collection methods used by those companies. Along those lines, just last year, Samsung TV voice recognition made the news for recording owners' chatter. Voice command systems can also be maliciously hijacked. Last year, a group of French researchers demoed a method for remotely controlling Siri from a distance, using sounds that triggered Siri’s voice control, but that couldn’t be recognized by a human. So what will voice-activated technology look like in five or ten years? Big names are interested in voice control because they attach it to AI and machine learning systems -- which are, in turn, fed by the Big Data they’ve collected -- for an interactive experience. The end goal would be a scenario where you could ask your computer to perform arbitrary tasks in the same manner as on Star Trek.
We used to search holiday magazines to find the hotel that offered the biggest pool and then triple check that the hotel has air conditioning. If we were really picky, we wouldn’t look twice at a hotel that didn’t offer cable TV. Now we see the perfect summer holiday in a different light. We can’t possibly leave our smartphones, tablets and laptops behind. A survey by Energy Company E.ON revealed that the most important feature hotels must have to even be considered is free Wi-Fi. Why do we find it so difficult to disconnect ourselves from the digital world? Even when we’re sitting in the beautiful sunshine, sipping on cocktails and splashing in the sea? Partly our digital dependence is practical, of course. The web helps us navigate around our holiday destinations finding the best attractions, the coolest bars and most remote beauty spots. But if we’re honest, many of us would admit that we’re so digitally connected because we don’t want to miss anything happening on Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter and all the other social apps filling our electronic wonders. We continue to check in, trying to make our friends jealous by posting the latest update about our perfect holiday. Now that we’ve settled that an internet connection is a top holiday priority, why don’t we just use our phone network? Simple: we’ve all heard the horror story of someone getting crazy high bill after spending just a few days in Spain. So, we’re constantly on the search for a local bar or café that offers free Wi-Fi. It’s a fantastic feeling to be wiser than our internet provider – they can’t spring us with unheard-of charges. But connecting to public Wi-Fi comes with its own risks, and, I would argue, scarier ones than an unexpected post-holiday bill. For example, take a look at this infographic. It shows the personal data that can be intercepted and the risks you face to your privacy when you connect to public Wi-Fi without using a VPN. If the thought alone of anyone being able to snoop on what you do online isn’t enough to want to run away from ever connecting to public Wi-Fi again, then think about the bigger risks. The worst case scenario here is you could become a victim of stalking, receive threats, or have your identity stolen. This might sound farfetched, but with what information you reveal on public Wi-Fi, is it worth the risk? If you use a VPN like Freedome while on public Wi-Fi, all your internet traffic will be encrypted. This means instead of your internet traffic connecting directly to the websites from your device, revealing exactly what you’re doing online to the Wi-Fi provider, the VPN will garble your internet traffic and keep what you’re doing online anonymous. You internet privacy and safety is our biggest concern here, and Freedome will definitely provide that security. But here’s a little extra to boost your internet love and consumption when on holiday abroad: When in another country, you might not be able to stream your favorite content from back home. But with Freedome VPN, you can be “virtually” back in your home country, accessing all your favorite content as if you never left.