An Introduction To Online Privacy Tools: Part 2

by Justin Thomas •

This the second article in our series “An Introduction To Online Privacy Tools” (see the first part here).

Install a VPN (Virtual Private Network)

Using a VPN or “virtual private network” is the best way to make your internet activities private. Until recently, VPNs were mostly used by companies to secure their employee’s network connections. There are now VPN services designed for personal use.

When you are connected to a VPN, all the data leaving your computer is encrypted. This makes it very difficult for hackers and eavesdroppers to monitor your internet connections.

This is particularly important if you use WiFi hotspots (in the local coffee shop or at a university for example). When you use a public WiFi you are broadcasting all of your data “in the clear” with typically no security whatsoever. This can include your emails, IM messages, web searches, and any other data sent or received over the wireless network.

Note that a VPN is different from a web proxy, which only redirects your browser connections. A VPN encrypts and redirects all your internet connections.

VPNs are also useful for keeping your online identity private. The web sites you visit and your online activities become reasonably anonymous, because your online connections are being routed through an anonymous computer. In fact, many people use VPNs to help them bypass censorship and limits imposed on them by their government.

If your work or school may also impose restrictions of your internet usage, a VPN can provide a secure tunnel to an unrestricted internet. Similarly, VPNs allow you to internationalize your online presence. Many websites (like Hulu) restrict content to specific countries, which can be frustrating if you are traveling away from your home country. Many people also use VPNs to help them bypass censorship and limits imposed on them by their government.

Which VPNs To Use?

There are many VPN services out there, here the VPN some recommendations:

Encrypt Your Email and Instant Messages

Encrypt emails you’d like to remain private. You can use Thunderbird + Enigmail to send encrypted email (using PGP). Use a secure Instant Message client or a plugin that supports OTR (Off-The-Record messaging). You can use Ekiga, a free video, phone and instant message application, or you can use the free instant message client Audium that supports OTR (Off-The-Record messaging).

Secure Your Computers

Set up your computer’s firewall. Only login in as an admin user when necessary. Use a strong passwords for your user accounts. Set your computer to log you out after 15 minutes. Encrypt your hard drives where possible. Some Mac and Linux installations have drive encryption built  into the operating system — you can turn on this encryption quite easily. You can also use Truecrypt, a piece of free software that can create encrypted drive disks that appear on your system as a regular files.

Secure Your Home Network

When setting up a wireless network use WPA2 encryption, use MAC address identification, set you network to not announce itself.

Set up you your router’s firewall — only open necessary ports.

Secure Your Mobile Devices

Secure your mobile devices with passwords, set them to log out after 5-15 minutes of inactivity. You can use a VPN on these phones and tablets. The process is a bit more tedious (mobile devices tend to disconnect VPNs quite often) but it does work.

Other Security Tools and Tips

Install a virus detector and malware (trojan horses, spyware, adware) detector. See our previous articles for recommended products: “The Top Rated Anti-Spyware Utilities For Macs” or “The Top Rated Anti-Virus Software For PCs“.

If you are interested in monitoring the internet connections by made by your computer, you can install a network monitor. This is another good way to discover malware on your system, but it requires you to do manual monitoring and researching. You can use the free Net Monitor for Windows or the Little Snitch ($30) for Macs.

Internet browsers and the plugins like Flash leave traces of your online activities on your computer. This files are not cleared away, even if you tell you browser to reset or if you clear your browser cookies and caches. You can install a computer “cleanser” to delete these additional logs and caches. A good example of a cleanser for Mac is Onyx (free).

Considering setting your computers to use OpenDNS for your DNS (domain name service). OpenDNS features phishing protection and misspelling correction, and optional content filtering.

You can back-up or store files securely in the “Cloud” using a paid service like Crashplan. This service can encrypt you files with 448 bit Blowfish encryption (very strong), and store them encrypted on Crashplan’s servers. You keep the encryption key — Crashplan never sees or stores the key.

Don’t open emails from questionable sources, and don’t install applications from questionable sources, especially those found on file sharing services (they tend to have malware, viruses or trojans). If you use a torrent client, set the client to use secure connections where possible, and set it to change to random ports if possible.

Tor is free software that routes Internet traffic through a worldwide volunteer network of servers. Like a VPN it can create private internet connections. Tor isn’t as comprehensive as a VPN because it only works with the applications set to use Tor as a proxy. Tor tend to create slower internet connections than a VPN, but it is a free service, and it is can be run in tandem with a VPN for an extra layer of privacy.

If you need a high level of online privacy, use a secure, read-only Debian GNU/Linux installation like Tails. Tails is free operating-system designed to be used from a DVD or a USB stick independently of the computer’s original operating system. Tails can be run in “read-only” installation, meaning it does not write any files to disk. This provides a high level of privacy because the operating system leave no traces of the user’s activities, and there’s little chance of the user being monitored by key-loggers and other tracking software.

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