I know a few people who are concerned about their online privacy, but who don’t have a good handle on what to do about it. There is always some story about some company leaking private data, or some government spying on people, or some “hackers” stealing information for nefarious purposes. So people are worried, but the defensive measures they might take aren’t always clear or easy to understand, let alone implement. I thought I’d write some easier to understand instructions and analysis for my less technically inclined friends.
First, it’s important to understand that, just like with any specialized field, there’s a specialized language for talking about the field. It looks and sounds like English, but one needs to be careful because, “security,” “privacy,” and “anonymity” all mean slightly different things and you get them in different ways. Further complicating things is the fact that the way you get security, privacy, or anonymity really depends on what you’re doing (sending/reading email, browsing web pages, chatting real-time, whatever) and what you’re specifically worried about.
“Security” means that the information or system that is “secure” is only accessible by the people who ought to be getting at it. It’s important to note here that the definition of, “person who ought to be able to get at this,” is up to you; it is not up to somebody else.
“Privacy” is closely related to security, and it means that sensitive information (which is information that you are worried about) is secure. Here, we’ve taken “security” and introduced risk (“I’m worried that bad things could happen to me or someone else if the wrong person gets hold of this information”).
“Anonymity” means that an outside observer can’t tell who you are or what you’re doing. Complete anonymity is really really hard when you’re doing stuff online. Often you can hide some aspects of your activity, but ultimately the computer you’re talking to needs to be able to receive information from you and send information back to you.
Second, it’s important to understand that, as with most things, the more secure, private, or anonymous you want to get, the more work you’re going to have to do. Fortunately, before you do any actual work on changing your tools or behaviors, you just do some clear thinking and make some decisions.
“Threat Modeling” means exactly what it sounds like: consider what you’re worried about, how bad it would be for you if the worst thing happened, and how much you’re willing to do to prevent that from happening. The Electronic Frontier Foundation has put together a swell set of tutorials on how to protect yourself from unwanted spying, and here’s a link to that. The very first thing they do is show how to do threat modeling.
The people I know who are concerned about all this are not, generally, criminals or political refugees or journalists or spies. They’re just normal people with bank accounts and houses and who worry that Bad Stuff might happen to them because the Internet and the NSA and Russian hackers. So let’s just start first with email, because that’s the easiest thing to get a handle on. We’ll cover web browsing another time.
- Information we’re worried about: email contents because we’re writing emails to our financial advisor about our retirement investments
- Who is the bad guy: some hacker who will use the email contents to steal our hard-earned cash, leaving us destitute in our old age
- How likely is it that we need to protect our email?
- Does the bad guy exist? Absolutely. There are gangs of criminals all over the world trying to get hold of this kind of information.
- Is email easily attacked? Absolutely. Email is the electronic equivalent of a postcard. Anyone who can intercept the message can read it without anyone ever knowing that they did.
- How bad is the worst case? Well, the bad guy gets access to our 401(k) and investment accounts, sells everything off, transfers the money to an account in Nigeria and leaves us with nothing but a fine due to the IRS because of early withdrawal. So, that’s bad.
- How hard will we work to make sure this doesn’t happen? This is up to you; for me, it’s totally worth an extra ten minutes every time I need to have a communication.
Next up is figuring out what to do to protect these emails and what that will cost in terms of time, effort, or even money (if we’ve got to buy some tools).