Internet Privacy: Anonymity in the Age of Internet Surveillance

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The 2013 disclosures of Edward Snowden were heavily discussed on both sides by privacy activists and proponents of surveillance alike. The only factor that remains indisputable, though, is the effect on confidence and the debate that it has opened on the issue of internet privacy.

It appears that the far-fetched narratives of mass surveillance and governments negotiating with multinational businesses to compromise privacy and protection have leapt out of the realms of dystopian fiction and landed in our daily lives. This is why many people now want to use the Tor network in order to preserve their privacy online. To allow anonymous communication, the network utilizes onion routing and relays to encrypt internet traffic three times.

We will look at some of the situations in this essay where governments and companies shelved their moral (and sometimes legal) obligations to implement backdoors to protection that left us vulnerable to breaches by them and other attackers. We’ll also explore ways to protect your privacy online using open source software and other resources.

Before that, let’s delve into a brief explanation for those of us confused about the distinction between privacy and anonymity, and whether they are as relevant as they’re made out to be.

Internet Privacy: What Do Privacy and Anonymity Mean?

And if everyone knows your name, anonymity refers to having the things you do online secret. Anonymity applies to maintaining your identities under the covers, while others will see your actions. There should be no way to connect your personal actions to your identity inside a scheme that promises to keep you anonymous.

With an example case, let’s understand these concepts:

It’s Alice’s birthday, and all her classmates are welcomed to her birthday party by her parents, as well as their friends. Everybody has a blast when it’s time for the cake to be sliced. That’s why they find that much of it has already been eaten by another (or several people)! The incident is visible in this case-someone ate the cake! But it maintains privacy so it may be all of the people attending the gathering, and assuming there is no way to pick one person out.

Now, imagine it was the younger brother of Alice, Tom, who ended up consuming the cake. For the remainder of the week, he doesn’t want to be grounded, because he needs his acts (i.e. eating the cake) to remain a mystery. Although everybody at the party knows who Tom is, no one knows what he’s done, and that’s secrecy.

The government claims to want to keep humanity safe from the Toms of the planet, with the aid of their cohorts. By wiretapping, tracking, monitoring all our behaviour, they want to do this (legally or illegally). Although others may be relaxed with internet monitoring because they think they have little to hide, some claim that the full effects of such surveillance on human rights are not understood by such individuals.

This takes us to the issue that comes next…

Internet Privacy: Why It’s Crucial, Even If You Think You Have Nothing to Hide?

We’ve also heard about cases in the office where an employee or supervisor’s unprofessional or abusive conduct got reported to human resources (HR) or the ethics and enforcement unit. Maybe you’ve made such a sensitive complaint against a colleague or boss. In those cases, you might choose to secretly mention the actions of a boss so as not to derail your own career in the event that they find out somehow that you have reported them.

Extend this notion to encompass a whole country. Who keeps watch on the government we elect to determine whether their powers are being used responsibly? And if, as they misuse their powers, we lift our voices, what choice do we have except finding asylum in a country without extradition laws?

Suddenly, doesn’t anonymity sound like a very good idea right now?

If any entity can peep into the lives and minds of all people to gather data, monitor their behaviour and make assessments based on that data, who is to assume that they will not have the ability to influence and dominate us eventually? This slope is slick.

A lot of social movements begin in the shadows and gather traction over time, especially for oppressed people, since they are perceived as having no place in a mainstream society. Not all nations are similarly open to development, and access to universal human rights is not available to all on this planet. In such cases, it takes away the forum where people can voice their complaints and be heard without facing retaliation if online privacy and protection are jeopardized.

Internet Privacy: To Trust or Not to Trust?

Let’s discuss a few scenarios and get a quick insight at how serious the threat to online privacy can be. The U.S. and U.K. are shown below. The blatant disdain by regimes for internet privacy:

Prism

Prism is the name of an NSA monitoring scheme that requires tech giants such as Microsoft, Google, YouTube, Apple, etc. to allow their servers access to user details.

Optic Nerve

Optic Nerve, a program started with the help of the NSA by the British intelligence department Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), is one that turned millions of British and Americans’ webcams against them. For every five minutes of video per user, it allowed hidden access to Yahoo! Webcam chats and took one still picture. Such images and their corresponding metadata were then subjected to algorithms for experimental facial recognition. It spied on the private conversions of around two million Yahoo! users over a six-month stretch in 2008. The communications of users were watched without any targeted emphasis or restriction on only certain persons who were considered to pose a threat to national security.

SIGINT Enabling Project

When it comes to internet security, the SIGINT Enabling Initiative shatters yet another delusion of the government making steps in the right direction. On this mission, the NSA invested $250 million a year to circumvent encryption of consumer goods. To undermine protocols and facilitate insecure cryptography, they have tampered with requirements such as those outlined by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST).

The NSA paid $10 million to RSA, an important network security firm, to develop backdoors in encryption devices, according to a Reuters report. RSA set DUAL EC DRBG, an algorithm known as a Dual Elliptic Curve Deterministic Random Bit Generator, as the default cryptographically stable pseudo-random number generator (CSPRNG) in its BSAFE toolkit. DUAL-EC-DRBG was considered one of the NIST-standardized CSPRNGs until 2014.

Alliances such as Five Eyes, Nine Eyes, and Fourteen Eyes control the world in which we live today. There are many mass monitoring programs run by governments around the world that aim to circumvent security restrictions by force of legislation, loophole manipulation, or hacking.

Internet Privacy: 10 Ways to Increase Your Data Privacy and Anonymity Online

Your browser will theoretically disclose a wealth of information about you any time you visit a website, everything from your browsing history and search requests to mouse movements on a web page.

Ever question why you get overwhelmed with commercials that are identical to the bag you attached to your cart? It’s because websites use cookies and, based on your digital activity, search history, and preferences, can profile you. This data is highly useful (and valuable) for advertisers, operators of blogs, etc.

So, what would you do to restrict their access to your data and improve your internet privacy? Let’s look at several ways to stop being watched when browsing the internet. Depending on your desired degree of online protection, you may opt to enforce any or more of these:

Clear Your Cache and Delete Temporary Internet Files

In the most simple way, do you want to increase your internet privacy? To erase stored cookies, uninstall the browser cache and temporary internet archives. You can automate this process with the Cookie AutoDelete extension, accessible on both Chrome and Mozilla. If you need to auto-fill your credentials on multiple pages, use a password manager instead (Note that this would also clear your saved passwords and other information that prepopulate your forms!) You can also incorporate password managers like Dashlane as extensions to store, handle, and auto-fill your passwords.

Using ad blockers and anti-tracking apps until your cookies are removed to prevent exposing your surfing habits without permission.

Use Incognito or Private Browsing Mode

While surfing, use Incognito mode, particularly if you’re on a shared machine or tablet. But be mindful that it does not hide the internet service provider’s surfing history. When you shut the browser, the private browsing mode simply deletes cookies and deletes your browsing history. It’s close to how the archive is cleared out manually and temporary internet files erased. It doesn’t supply you with privacy, like the one above.

By changing the settings, you can allow ad blockers, anti-tracking extensions, and other protection plugins to run in incognito mode.

Use Extensions That Protect Your Privacy Online

You will have some influence of your browsing experience through ad blockers and anti-tracking plugins such as Ghostery and Privacy Badger. You can view which trackers they are blocking and choose to block additional trackers or unblock them.

VPN extensions like NordVPN and SurfEasy provide options to encrypt the traffic from your computer to the VPN network escape point, or free alternatives like Windscribe. This technologies help to avoid eavesdroppers from listening to traffic on your network. The pages you visit will see the IP address of the VPN rather than yours. Any free as well as paying VPNs have been involved, but make sure to fully verify before opting for any such service.

You may also vote for extensions like FoxyProxy to switch the link across several proxy servers.

Use the Tor Network to Surf the Internet

Use the Tor browser as it was designed for allowing anonymous communication. In addition to stopping third-party trackers from tracking you around, it utilizes onion routing to hide your IP address from prying eyes. The idea is to avoid an outsider from connecting you to your actions on the site. Of course, it also calls for some safeguards on your end, such as:

  • To secure your true identity by using pseudonyms,
  • Compartmentalization of the use of social media, and/or
  • not leaving trails with your actual email addresses.

The Tor for Android is Orbot. It bundles Tor’s anonymizing capabilities and functionality and takes it to the smartphone operating system for Android. The bad news here? Because of interoperability concerns, there’s no official Tor software for iOS. The good news here? The open-source Onion Browser was endorsed by the Tor community.

Switch Search Engines

Using Google, don’t. As these search engines do not track or store any information about you, or put cookies on your computer, turn to DuckDuckGo or Startpage. Keep this in mind, especially when using the Tor network.

Use a Trusted Service for Instant Messaging

Use open-source applications like Signal, Ricochet, Kontalk, etc. that use end-to-end encryption. Another cloud-based, highly encrypted IM alternative is Telegram, but its server-side code is proprietary. WhatsApp still has end-to-end security, of course, but once again, Facebook owns it. Make what you will from that.

Whenever you use some piece of software, as a general rule of thumb, ensure that you have fair faith in its developers. Open source projects have a larger scale in terms of access to users around the world, and they’re not limited to a company’s payroll. They are exposed to usage cases not initially planned by the developers, exposing vulnerabilities early on that demand fast cycles of growth and regular launches of patches.

Review Your Choice of Operating System

Windows by Microsoft (the first organization who decided to join in the PRISM program) is not the only operating system out there, as you already know. Switch to security-focused Linux distributions like Whonix or Tails if you’re worried about secrecy and anonymity.

To prevent the IP address from leakage, both operating systems route their traffic via Tor. However, from the point of view of forensics, Tails, a live operating system, is best suited since it leaves no trace. Working on two virtual machines (VMs), Whonix allows the workstation to be disconnected from the network. This makes the alternative between patience and solitude a stronger one.

You need to take action to scrub out your forensic past with Whonix. Using a VPN along with Whonix isn’t recommended. Based on Linux and the XenClient XT architecture, Qubes OS is designed to provide compartmentalization protection and separate multiple components. The rest are not impacted if one gets compromised.

Lineage OS, an open-source operating system, comes filled with customization and protection options for Android users, which may help you prolong the life of mobile devices.

Choose the Right VPN

Choose the correct Virtual Private Network (VPN) in terms of whether it logs traffic or IP information, or whether it comes under the authority of surveillance alliance countries. There are several providers of VPNs with a policy of no data logging. Some also offer free plans, but with restrictions on the functionality of the server and the amount of concurrent connections it serves. You should invest some time investigating and running a thorough VPN comparison before making a purchase.

Use Good Sense to Judge Whether an App Is Requesting Excess Permissions

In order to count your everyday steps, it might make sense for a health app to monitor your location, but if it demands permission to read your call logs or messages, it could raise a red flag. Before clicking the enable icon, always look out and take a second to determine whether the software you’re installing wants access to the data it demands. The ProtectMyPrivacy (PMP) app can:

  • Detect when other users seek to access data that is vulnerable to privacy,
  • Until making permission decisions, give the user some sense and
  • Has the opportunity to exchange anonymized data properly.

Some Other Tools for Maintaining Internet Privacy and Anonymity Online

HTTPS Anywhere — This extension encrypts your traffic on the network to make your browsing experience more safe. This is particularly helpful on sites where the unencrypted HTTP protocol persists as normal.

ProxyChains-This UNIX software forces all TCP links to be filtered to provide you with greater privacy via a set of proxy servers.

Utopia — This decentralized, peer-to-peer ecosystem supports personal messaging, email, file sharing, etc. over a secure connection without the involvement of a third party.

Open Observatory of Network Interference (OONI) — This free software, under the Tor Project, is a global network that you can use to observe and detect censorship, surveillance, and traffic manipulation over the wire.

Ultimate Thoughts

Although it remains a dream to attain 100 percent anonymity or ensure impermeable online privacy, there are some actions you can take to be in charge of your digital footprint. We should work to ensure that the internet continues to be an independent medium by helping those who make it possible to have privacy in the age of mass surveillance, and by using instruments that safeguard our records.

Melina Richardson is a Cyber Security Enthusiast, Security Blogger, Technical Editor, Certified Ethical Hacker, Author at Cybers Guards & w-se. Previously, he worked as a security news reporter.