I decided to spend some time this week addressing security and data sharing. This was prompted by me reading Permanent Record by Edward Snowden, watching Dr Robert Epstein on The Joe Rogan Experience, my son enrolling in a cyber security course and my experience over the years.
- The executive summary is simple: the majority of people are being watched, tracked and recorded for the majority of, if not all of, the day. This is happening through your phone, your TV, Alexa, Siri, Google Assistant and any device potentially connected to the World Wide Web. Years ago, you needed someone to stealthily enter a house and grab some data. In the modern world, it is mostly done remotely over wires, fibre, radio waves and other parts of the electromagnetic spectrum.
- Consider your favourite search engine. It may be Chrome, DuckDuckGo, Safari, Firefox or another. Google provides search results for an estimated 93% of all requests. Google, as exposed by a whistleblower, has a blacklist process where if the search resulted in an entry in the blacklist, that result would not be shown. When you search on Safari and Firefox, they first check the Google blacklist before returning results. Dr Epstein has been testing the processes around this for a few years now.
- Imagine you have two widgets A and B. In the beginning, they both have an equal chance of being seen and the likelihood that a person would pick A over B is the same or 50/50. However, based on the research, if a search engine filters out the negatives of A and promotes only its positives while promoting the negatives of B, then this can shift the perception of A over B by as much as 90 to 10 compared to the original 50/50. Some years ago, I wrote the effect could be as much as a 15% swing. With refinements in technology, that has grown to as much as a 40% shift in the example above.
- There are browsers like Brave that have their own search engine which does not impose such bias and DuckDuckGo also tries to limit bias, but they still get their data from Google. Try typing just the letter G in your Google search engine. Chances are that you will get most of the results being Google. If you try different letters, more often than not you will get a major retailer in your area because they have paid for that privilege.
- Dr Epstein has some suggestions. First get rid of anything Gmail related as all emails, including drafts, not sent are analysed and permanently stored on their servers. If you have the choice use something like Proton Mail. Of course, if you use this to communicate with a Gmail account, your emails will still be shared with Google. To be more secure, your friends will also need to switch away from Gmail.
- You will need to change your search engine. The simplest is to use startpage.com because it doesn't track you, but still uses Google's index. It also allows you to avoid search suggestions that can be used to manipulate. The next step is to not use Chrome, including the so-called incognito mode as this also tracks you. Instead use Firefox with startpage.com as the search engine or the Brave browser, built by an ex-Firefox employee. Next, avoid Android. If you want your privacy protected then you will need to move to Apple or something similar as their focus is on making money from their products rather than services that track your data. That is not to say they don't do any tracking, just a lot less. Don't get any of those home devices like Alexa as they record everything anyone says. Yes, this includes Android-based smart TV's. This even includes things like Nest, the home thermostat, as it was revealed that it contains a hidden microphone.
- Other things are simple, like clearing all your cache and cookies in your browser, which I've covered before and you can easily look up a how-to for your browser. On your phone, you can do this from the settings menu of your browser by going to the privacy and security area and then clicking on the clear icon. Another simple thing to do is get yourself on a VPN (Virtual Private Network). I use Strong VPN but there are others like NordVPN, PrivateInternetAccess.com and others like BitDefender that provides one in their product set.
- Finally for this week, consider that the more you have FOMO (fear of missing out), the more likely you are to check your social media feeds and the more you are giving away your privacy.
- I am not a good example to follow because I have a smart TV, use an Android phone and still sometimes use Chrome as a browser. In contrast, I also use a VPN, and use the Brave browser and Peerblock to provide some protection from direct snooping. In researching this article, I also changed my search engine to startpage.com. You can choose just how much protection you want to implement.
James Hein is an IT professional of over 30 years' standing. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.