Protect Your Digital Privacy: Introduction

The two most potent weapons to protect your digital privacy are a strong dose of common sense and encryption, i.e. scrambling digital data so that the only people who can read it are people authorized with a key or a password

The Purposes of Encryption

What many people do not realize is that if they use the World Wide Web, they are using encryption some of the time already. The next time you sign into your bank’s website for example, look for the “https” at the beginning of the address (URL) of the bank’s web page. The “s” on the end of the “http” means that the site is secure (encrypted), so that no one will be able to sniff out your password as you access your money.

For all the talk lately about how much privacy we have sacrificed to the Internet and social networking sites like Facebook, most people throw up their hands and do nothing. And yet, in our daily lives, even in these troubled modern times, people still recognize some value in personal privacy. Do you shut the bathroom door behind you? Do you pull the curtain when you shower? Would you be disturbed if found your next door neighbor peering through your bedroom window? Do you lock the door of your house? How about your car? Or, the classic example, do you prefer to send a personal letter in an envelope or on a postcard? Asking for a little privacy in your personal life does not make you a freak in a tin foil hat, and neither does doing so on the Internet. After all, if it is good enough for your bank, why not for you?

In addition, clearly there are times when you really do want your information on your computer to be not just private but secure. Suppose for example, you need to email your spouse your social security number? What if you had to email medical records or tax information? In any of these cases, you want to be sure that only the right people see the information, and nobody else.

The good news is that there is available a wide range of simple yet sophisticated free tools with which you can easily encrypt your data and help protect your digital privacy.

Obstacles to Encryption

Nevertheless, there are a number of obstacles to be surmounted in order to use encryption successfully. They basically boil down to embarrassment, ignorance, inconvenience, and critical mass.

Embarrassment

Whenever I mention encryption to a particular friend, he shrugs and tells me, “I can see how it might be a good thing, but whenever I think about trying it out, I feel as though I am putting on my tin foil hat and my secret decoder ring.” After all, is anything we have to communicate really so super secret and important that we need to go through elaborate rituals to conceal it?

As discussed above, there are simple and legitimate reasons why you might not want to let every aspect of your personal life hang out on the Internet, just as you would not want to do so in the rest of your life.

Ignorance

Even if one can get past the embarrassment of playing with the secret decoder ring, does anyone outside of the NSA really know how this stuff works anyway? And who has time to learn?

The aim of this series is to provide some simple, bite-sized tips that will help people gradually get started.

Inconvenience

Even with readily available free and modern tools available to individuals, users still face a learning curve. In addition, using encryption on a regular basis entails a modicum of extra effort. Who needs that?

The difficulty of learning how to use encryption is often overstated. Frankly, I find Microsoft Office to be a significantly greater challenge.

Critical Mass

When encryption is used to protect communications between two or more people, it generally requires that both people have and use the same encryption technology. All too often, someone who has equipped themselves with encryption technology ends up all dressed up with nowhere to go, i.e., they can’t use their encryption technology for lack of people who are similarly equipped.

By spreading knowledge about encryption, we get closer to the day when it will be as natural, usual, and transparent for individuals as it is now for business.

Hopefully by now the need for privacy and the practical value of encryption are sufficiently clear to motivate people to investigate a little further, and the rest of this series will be aimed at addressing technical obstacles.

The Plan of the Series

I am not a cryptanalyst or computer scientist, so this series will be written from the point of view of an ordinary computer user with some experience using each of the technologies described. The descriptions will be practical rather than theoretical and are designed simply to allow people to begin experimenting with encryption as a first step toward learning more.

The idea of the series is to allow people to answer in a practical fashion questions along the following lines:

  1. How can I protect my communications on the World Wide Web?
  2. How can I keep my email secure and private?
  3. How can I protect and store my passwords?
  4. How can I keep sensitive files safe on my desktop, laptop, or removable media?
  5. Can I surf the web anonymously?
  6. What should I know about using computers other than my own?

The series will be aimed at answering these questions, and, to the extent possible, pointing people in the direction of practical solutions for Windows, Macintosh, and Linux, with possibly some discussion of mobile technology such as the iPhone.

Further Reading

Philip Zimmerman played a crucial role in the development of online privacy when he wrote and released the free and publicly available encryption program PGP. In response to those who criticized or questioned Zimmerman’s decision to make secure communications available to ordinary citizens, Zimmerman wrote Why I wrote PGP.

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4 Responses to Protect Your Digital Privacy: Introduction

  1. Pingback: Protecting your online privacy — a series by Bill Day | Montgomery County Civil Rights Coalition

  2. Bill, thanks for this post; I’m really looking forward to your series. I don’t know if you’re planning to mention it — or if there’s enough to say about it yet, or if it’s adequately designed — but I’d like to hear what you think about the alternative social network Diaspora (or alternatives, if there are any).

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  3. PS: sorry about the ad. I don’t know how to get rid of it without paying for that.

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  4. Bill Day says:

    Thomas, I will try to put something together on social networking toward the end of the series. I think I will probably need to address two issues: aggregation of information and internet security with respect to social networking. My shoot-from-the-lip reaction is that there are basically two rules (neither of which is original with me) obviously with exceptions: 1) if the service is free, then you are the commodity, and 2) if you don’t want to see something on the front page of the New York Times, don’t post it to the Internet. With respect to Diaspora, it’s an interesting approach, but we’ll have to see if it gains any traction. Also worth looking at is Eben Moglen’s “freedom boxes,” about which I may also post an entry in future.

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