Girding up your loins

“Gird your loins”. It’s a delightful expression, albeit arcane, and one that I’ve never used in print before – which lead me to do some research on its origin, that took me away from the main thrust of this post – gosh it’s so easy to drift off sideways. Anyway, here’s the answer, courtesy of The Art of Manliness (moving sideways again, the site is a delightful piece of retro design that probably doesn’t feature in the list of top 100 feminist websites):

On this fateful day, as the 45th President of the United States is inaugurated, let’s look at the rapid change that has been taking place on the the digital privacy frontier. The last few months have seen digital privacy take a huge lurch backwards; from the UK’s Investigatory Powers Bill, AKA the Snooper’s Charter, with its broad powers on data collection and retention (as US whistleblower Edward Snowden tweeted: “The UK has just legalised the most extreme surveillance in the history of western democracy. It goes further than many autocracies.”), to the breaching of WhatsApp privacy by Facebook, fings ain’t what they used to be. (To fully appreciate the nature of the beast, see the Wikipedia entry for surveillance.)

According to a report on the use of encryption and anonymity in digital communication to the UN Human Rights Council, governments should promote the use of strong encryption and protect anonymous expression online. In an era of unprecedentedly broad and intrusive government surveillance, these tools often offer the only safe way for people in repressive environments to express themselves freely.

Besides state-sponsored surveillance, there’s also been a huge growth in commercial data grabbing and profiling, with your web browsing habits being closely scrutinised right, left and centre, and being sold to the highest bidders. The criminals aren’t missing out either – identity theft and online fraud continue to rise at an alarming rate, and much of this is aided and abetted by criminals snooping on public WiFi hotspots (if you use public wifi, snooping on you is way easier than you think).

So it’s definitely time to gird up your loins, and protect your private parts  by wrapping them up with in shielding material. Here’s a few top tips for keeping your privates out of public view:

Use a VPN

Millions of people don’t just like free Wi-Fi—they plan their lives around it. A study from last year found that 49 percent of business travellers say that they consider free Wi-Fi a “deciding” factor when picking out a place to stay.

When they connect from their hotel room or at an airport or in a coffee shop via laptop, phone or tablet, they’re likely emailing, shopping and banking as if they’re at home or in their office. It doesn’t feel any different to get online through Wi-Fi than it does through a secure network so why would you behave any differently?

Without a VPN (or Virtual Private Network), it’s trivial for anyone else using the same WiFi to see big parts of your traffic, A VPN encrypts your data, even on public WiFi, creating a private tunnel that makes your personal information impossible to intercept. Think of it as drawing your curtains at home when you don’t want people outside looking into your house.

With a good VPN, you get more than protection for your WiFi or mobile connection. Many VPNs also remove tracking cookies and other potential breaches of privacy. The added benefit of this is that browsing becomes much faster – it can often be faster with a VPN than without.

So as well as up-to-date online security, you should run a VPN, especially if you do your business on the run. With a VPN, wherever you connect, a VPN protects all your PCs, Macs, smartphones and tablets to prevent  businesses, cybercriminals or authoritative organisations from tracking you online and using your personal information. You can also access virtual locations to use services available only available in certain regions – for instance, BBC iPlayer.

Nowadays VPNs are ridiculously easy to set up, and can run on all your devices with you hardly knowing they’re there. There’s a whole host of companies supplying VPN services, and which one you choose comes down to a number of factors, including (but not restricted) to what you do online and how much you want to pay. Before jumping in with a VPN, do your research and find the service that suits your needs best.

Recently the Opera browser has had a VPN built in, which protects your web traffic but not other internet-connected programs, and is an easy and free way to see if a VPN will suit you.

Use a secure instant messenger

The (free) Signal messenger is the gold standard for secure instant messengers. It’s not perfect, but there’s no known security flaws. Built by Open Whisper Systems and recommended by Edward Snowden, it’s fully open source. It’s available for iOS and Android, and seamlessly combines end-to-end encrypted text and voice for Signal to Signal communications with plain vanilla unencrypted SMS for non-Signal users, and so can be your one-stop SMS and IM client.

Block website trackers

Nearly every time you visit a web page, there will be one or more trackers on the site that note your visit and record what details they can about you. This information is then stored to recognise you on future visits, and also consolidated and sold on the marketing companies. Often the same tracker is used on many different web sites, and you can be recognised as you move around the web (Google Analytics is a prime culprit here – it’s estimated that 8 out of 10 sites have it installed).

There’s a growing number of browser add-ons available to deal with this. Some block one or more specific trackers, others are sophisticated enough to block traffic that looks like it’s a tracker. Here’s some of the best – all free:

Use HTTPS / SSL whenever possible

You might have noticed that some website addresses (e.g. those for banks) begin https:// rather than http://. This means that the web server is running SSL, or Secure Sockets Layer, which encrypts all traffic between you and the server, making your browsing more secure.

If a website can be accessed via SSL, you should always do this. There’s a nifty little plugin for Firefox, Chrome, and Opera called HTTPS Everywhere from the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which will automatically connect you to a site via SSL if this facility is available.

Keep updated

Keep all your operating systems and apps up to date, to minimise security holes.

Keep an eye on new developments in the privacy and security field. The rather marvellous Electronic Frontier Foundation publish an up-to-date online manual of best practices – Surveillance Self Defence.

So go forth and gird up your loins, and you’ll be ready to rock – just like this happy crew are: