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Internet Privacy Part III: Final Thoughts

I have bones to pick with this segment.

Per @AZAgainstTrump, Jeff Flake sent it out with his newsletter in what I can only assume is an attempt to write off legitimate worry as political bluster. I won’t contest all of it, but that there’s “really nothing you can do?” VPNs “aren’t really an option” because “most people don’t even know what that is?”

I mean, let’s not even try to define it. We’ll just leave it there as this big, scary tech-thing for people to avoid.

True story: I didn’t know much about VPNs either until recently. Now I have tips. Opera, for one, and not the kind with Vikings. It’s a browser that fell off the radar but buffed up their security in the meantime. Built-in VPN, for starters.

Let’s demystify from the ground up, shall we?

Encryption. Write that down, it’s CyberSec’s bread and butter and it’ll be on the test. All that means is that your data got scrambled into gibberish via computers and math. If your url starts with https, you’ve already got an encryption layer going for you. All your ISP can see is that you’re on that site. If it or a hacker wanted to un-scramble anything, they’d need codes (keys): one unique to you, one for the site’s general use, basically half a complicated equation each.

But as discussed last time and as anyone who’s ever had to delete their history before lending out a laptop knows (Ctrl + H to see it, Ctrl + Shift + Delete to wipe it; wards off snooping grandmothers and random glitches!), what you can infer from sites you visit is… spooky. And because it can still see your IP address – your device’s ID on the network and the thing that allows browsing in the first place – your ISP still knows it’s you and that you’re browsing from your favorite coffee shop.

Good security means encryption and IP-masking. VPNs do both, opening a private tunnel so that they can encrypt your data and cover your IP with their own – one that can be in Guam for all it matters. Your ISP still knows you’re online, but that’s all it knows. And now it thinks you’re in Guam. Neat, huh?

A word of caution, though: to do what it does, a VPN needs to route all your data. It is also in a position to sell you out. Use one, but do your research. Pay special attention to whether the provider stores anything.

So that covers your ISP, but what about companies that are already tailing you?

Now we’re talking cookies. These are little crumbs of data (ba-dum tsh) used by websites to recognize you as the same user from page to page. Helpful if you don’t constantly want to change your settings. But third-party cookies may hop on through an ad on one site and stick with you across the web, sucking up your info to learn what appeals to you. The “delete history” page will give you an option to erase them, but Do Not Track and full-on blocking them keep most of them off. Also, ad-blocking. Hello again, Opera!

Now, if you want to get really deep into this, you can use Tor, which acts like a VPN but bounces you from server to server. The tunnel isn’t up long enough to bust into. It is slower at times and it does pose occasional risk (hackers don’t want to be tracked either) but I have not personally used it yet, so I’ll leave that up to you to read up on. Just make sure you use the Tor browser together with the software to make sure your real IP won’t leak through.

Otherwise, I’ll finish up with oft-ignored basics. Please, please follow all the patronizing advice you’ve ever heard about passwords. At work, I was advised to go into the options of my browser and tell it to not even ask if I want it to remember them. A password manager (such as LastPass) can keep them under lock and key, so you only need to remember your master password. Whenever possible, do for your phone what you’d do for a computer. Play around with the settings a bit. Don’t be the toupee using his unsecured Android. Please.

You’re not going to get full lockdown unless you never use the internet again (hah), but don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t avoid tracking. That’s what they want you to think (cue the tinfoil hat)! Ask questions if you have them, and if any of you more advanced techies spot a mistake, say so. I’m not aiming to misinform. We get enough of that. Otherwise, that’s all I’ve got for now. Thanks for bearing with the giant post, and stay safe out there!

Guest blog by @Katrina_Hockman

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