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Mask up to keep your data safe online

Ok, so you don’t actually have to wear a mask. Frédéric Bisson

In May, the US Justice Department secretly obtained two months of telephone records from reporters of the Associated Press (AP), a multinational non-profit news agency. AP’s chief executive Gary Pruitt described this seizure as “a massive and unprecedented intrusion” into how news organisations gather the news.

Such high profile cases illustrate the potential of targeted data intrusion. It reminds us that every person’s data is at risk today.

Getting serious about web anonymity

Internet and digital tools form part of our everyday lives, often at a very intimate level. People use them for many purposes, from sharing political opinions to sexual persuasions, with what they think is a select group of people.

What many people do not realise is that almost everything we do online creates a trail of data and the personal details we share are being accumulated by agencies for other purposes. Stitching together your online habits has become an everyday task for e-commerce algorithms who monitor the individual websites you visit and apps you download. When we drill down further we find that our music tastes, the amount we spend and the people we know can now be tracked, stored and analysed as part of the big data revolution.

This data is then used by institutions and organisations for targeted marketing offers and can affect the credit ratings and insurance decisions we are subject to. The unprecedented tracking of our actions, thoughts and desires, and the abuses that this can lead to, has completely escaped effective regulation.

Parties to the rescue

To combat this, I organised a CryptoParty at Goldsmiths College – looking at the basics of practical cryptography, the practice and study of techniques for secure communication. Cryptoparties have arisen to get people to harness available tools available to ensure private chats stay private and that our email and web browsing is secure. Rather than trying to understand the complex mathematical concepts behind cryptography, these parties encourage people to look at the basic landscape and to develop a sense of what is going on when they share information online.

The idea was conceived in August 2012, following a casual Twitter conversation between Australian privacy advocate Asher Wolf and computer security experts in the wake of the Australian Cybercrime Legislation Amendment Bill. The DIY movement quickly went viral with CrytoParties popping up in cities across Australia, US, UK and Germany.

We may not be able to completely escape acid effect of “stalking as a business model”, but we can do a lot to take back some privacy. Here are some top tips for protecting your privacy:

  • Learn how to encrypt important emails using public key crytography. With tools like GNU Privacy Guard (GPG), which can be added to the Thunderbird email program. As a bonus, this also lets you send “signed” emails, where the text may not be encrypted but where the recipient knows they must have come from you and no one else.

  • Create encrypted folders on the hard drive of your computer using a tool like TrueCrypt. Even if you lose your laptop, or your disk’s contents get copied by officials when you cross a border (it happens!), your important files will be completely unreadable.

  • Use a secure program for private chats and instant messaging. To stop Facebook or Google harvesting your banter use a combination of tools, like Pidgin with Off-the-Record Messaging.

  • Browse anonymously using the Tor network. This is as easy as downloading the Tor bundle and launching it. You can then roam the web as securely as if tracking had never been thought of.

Don’t be put off if this sounds obscure or complicated. The tools are easier to use than they have ever been, and the need to learn about them has never been more pressing. This handbook walks you through the important steps, screen by screen. And keep an eye out for a CryptoParty near you.

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