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Here is a scenario you may be familiar with or never considered.

You were planning a vacation and discussed it with your friends or family. You talk about when you plan to travel, potential accommodation and activities you would like to do while on vacation.

Nothing is confirmed and you have not searched anything on your computer or phone.

You then go on your Facebook and there it is on your feed – ads related to where you would like to travel, flight, and hotel specials. The same is for your Instagram and browser.

Coincidence maybe? No! Big Data was listening and had been listening for a long time.

Most are not strangers to the concept of surveillance capitalism and targeted advertising. However, many do not particularly care, either. After all, who would not want relevant ads for movies or products that might appeal to you or improve your life?

Many do not understand the aggressive measures companies implement to create those marketing profiles or the devastating effects they can have on people.

Believe it or not, entire companies exist to collect your data and build profiles about you.

What is your privacy worth to you? How about your data? Can you put a number on them? Maybe they’re worth more than you think!

You would never let the government or a corporation put cameras and microphones in your home or a location tracker on you. But you may not have realized that you did it yourself because – you want to watch cute puppy videos and memes.

In most instances, many substitute their privacy and security for convenience without realizing it. For example, when signing up for a new application or service, most click “Sign in with Facebook or Google account” because it’s much easier than creating a new email address and strong password to gain access.

Microsoft, Google, and Facebook, what do they all have in common? The answer to this question is not amazing applications or technological innovation; it is data. For a good reason, data is considered the most valuable commodity on earth. It is a means of controlling how you think and behave. It is the magic wand of manipulation. 

Technology oligarchs have made billions by using, buying, and selling users’ data. Their applications are designed to capture users’ data, unknowingly and knowingly, through deceptive permissions, “Allow, grant permission or the application would not work.” So, giving your data for free is not optional but mandatory. Whether you choose to opt in or not, your data is being harvested.

However, while Facebook and Google have amassed unprecedented amounts of data on users of their applications, they aren’t the only ones participating in what Shoshana Zuboff refers to as surveillance capitalism. Payment processors and government agencies such as the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the National Security Agency (NSA) also harvest data without permission. 

As NSA General Counsel Stewart Baker has said, “metadata absolutely tells you everything about somebody’s life. If you have enough metadata, you don’t really need content.” General Michael Hayden, former director of the NSA and the CIA, called Baker’s comment “absolutely correct” and raised him one, asserting, We kill people based on metadata.”

When sufficient metadata is collected, you can infer things that a person did not necessarily want to reveal.

  • They know you called a gynaecologist, spoke for a half-hour, and then called the local Planned Parenthood number later that day. But nobody knows what you spoke about.
  • They know you got an email from an HIV testing service, then called your doctor, then visited an HIV support group website in the same hour. But they don’t know what was in the email or what you talked about on the phone.
  • They know you called the suicide prevention hotline from the Golden Gate Bridge. But the topic of the call remains a secret.

Metadata has the potential to be just as revealing as the content itself and, therefore, should be protected just as much as the actual data.

Many industries are storing “surveillance scores” on persons, which can be used to determine employability, overall consumer trustworthiness, and insurance rates, to name a few.

In 2018, the U.S. government passed the CLOUD Act (Clarifying Overseas Use of Data Act). Through this Act, U.S. law enforcement officials at any level, from local police to federal agents, can force tech companies to turn over user data regardless of where the company stores the data.

Therefore companies like Google and Facebook can be forced to hand over a user’s content and metadata, even if stored in a foreign country, without following that foreign country’s privacy laws.

Data is always in demand, and everybody wants a piece of it. But, unfortunately, with it, big data and the government becomes the puppet masters, and you become the puppet. A great example of this in action was presented in The Great Hack.

The Great Hack is an informative documentary exposing how Cambridge Analytica misused Facebook data to manipulate swing voters in several elections, the greatest being the United States 2016 presidential elections. Cambridge Analytica bragged that it had up to 5000 data points on every U.S. voter.

Applying “psychographic” analytics to its dataset claimed to determine people’s personality types and then individually micro-target messages to influence their behaviour. The most important source of the data was Facebook. Via a third-party app, Cambridge Analytica improperly obtained data from up to 87 million Facebook profiles – including status updates, likes, and even private messages.

Google and Facebook have unparalleled access to tracking and monetizing our lives by controlling the primary gateways to the online world through:

  • Google Search
  • Chrome
  • Android 
  • YouTube 
  • GPay
  • Google’s suite of applications (Gmail, Drive, Photos, etc.)
  • Facebook
  • Messenger
  • Instagram 
  • WhatsApp
GOOGLE – YOUR DIGITAL SHADOW

You may be freaked out, but improving your privacy and security practices is necessary. So let us look at some of the things Google has on you.

Google follows you everywhere you go.

If you have location tracking enabled on your device, Google knows where you have been from the time you started using Google on your device. You can view a timeline of everywhere you have been here.

Google monitors everything you have “Googled” and deleted

Unfortunately, deleting your search history on one device does not protect you from Google’s eyes, as Google stores the history from all your devices. You can view your activities here.

Google knows your favourite applications; they know all you use.

Apps or extensions, Google stores information on everyone you use. For example, how often you use them, when and where, and who you use them to communicate and interact with. You can view your activities here.

Google has a holy grail of data on you – available for your to download 

Get your portable hard drive ready because ALL the data Google has stored on you can be downloaded. This data includes:

  • Files in your Google Drive
  • Bookmarks
  • Emails
  • Contacts
  • Your YouTube videos
  • Photos and videos from your device
  • Calendar
  • Location History
  • Phones you’ve owned + much more

If someone gains access to your Google Account, they will have a chronological diary of everything you have done in the last ten years. You can view and download your data here

Other data Google has on you include:

FACEBOOK – THE BLACK SHEEP OF TECH-INDUSTRY

Facebook has a wrap sheet of security and privacy scandals concerning users’ data dating back over a decade. Although many of these scandals have been made public, many of the 2.7 billion users of their applications are often overlooked. View our rant about these incidents in our article on Libra.

Facebook’s algorithm determines your interests by using what you have liked, shared, and discussed on their platforms. It gets more complicated. Every picture you have uploaded, downloaded, and tagged is also tracked to determine connections and relationships. Facebook also stores the following information:

  • Every time you log in
  • Login location
  • Connected applications
  • Browsing activity after you have logged out
  • All applications you have ever connected to your account
  • A historical record of the contacts on your phone (including deleted ones)
  • Metadata about every SMS message you have sent or received
  • Metadata about every cellular call you’ve made, including the time and duration

Facebook has an option similar to Google, where you can download all your information. This information includes:

  • All messages you have sent and received
  • All files you have sent and received
  • All audio messages you have sent and received
  • All your phone contacts
MICROSOFT – THE PRIVACY NIGHTMARE

Microsoft built their tracking tools into the Windows Operating System (O.S.) and the “required updates” they push to your device. You are told if you do not keep your operating system up to date, it will be at risk of XYZ, or it will not function properly.

Therefore, many non-technical users set their devices to update automatically and do not review any of the updates because” who has time for that…right?” Until you realize that Microsoft has made a permanent choice for you to “send diagnostic data about your system.” (See image below)

You may not have understood that is what you signed, stamped, and agreed to when you clicked next, next, next, agree, accept, and update without reading the fine print or doing any due diligence.

WINDOWS 10 – NOT AS SECURE AS YOU THINK

Many users love Windows 10 for its user-friendliness and familiarity. However, what many users are not aware of is the amount of data that is harvested. Sadly, you agreed to it [harvesting of your data] when you installed the Windows O.S. or purchased a device with it pre-installed. Remember… next, next, next, agree, accept, update, without reading the fine print?

How is your privacy compromised?

Data syncing is, by default, enabled

  • Browsing history and open websites.
  • Apps settings.
  • WiFi hotspot names and passwords.

Your device is, by default, tagged with a unique advertising I.D.

  • It serves you with personalized advertisements by third-party advertisers and ad networks.

Cortana can collect any of your data

  • Your keystrokes, searches, and mic input
  • Calendar data
  • The music you listen to
  • Credit Card information.
  • Purchases

Microsoft can collect any personal data.

  • Your identity
  • Passwords
  • Demographics
  • Interests and habits
  • Usage Data
  • Contacts and relationships
  • Location data
  • Content like emails, instant messages, caller lists, audio and video recordings

Your data can be shared.

  • When downloading Windows 10, you authorize Microsoft to share any of the data mentioned above with any third party, with or without your consent. 

Do not take my word for it; they said it themselves:

Microsoft Privacy Statement – Microsoft collects, uses, and discloses personal information as described here. This allows OneDrive data, Cortana searches, and M.S. browser history to be sold to third parties.

Cortana and privacy – To personalize your experience and provide the best possible suggestions, Cortana accesses your email and other communications and collects data about your contacts (People), like their title, suffix, first name, last name, middle name, nicknames, and company name. If you call, email or text someone, or they call, email, or text you, Cortana collects that person’s email address or phone number.

However, have no fear W10 Privacy is here, and if you are interested in alternatives, check out the Comparison of Windows 10 Privacy Tools. DebloBat is also a great open-source tool to enforce Windows 10 and 11 privacy.

LET’S START CLEANING

Big Data continues to improve and develop new ways to harvest users’ data. However, you can take measures to make it difficult by reducing your digital footprint and using encrypted services.

The most drastic measure would be to stop using technology, which is unrealistic as technology is somehow integrated into our lives. Also, there is a trade-off, convenience over privacy or privacy over convenience. You cannot have both.

Have you ever gone through your email and wondered, “when did I sign up for all these mailing lists?” Then it becomes quite challenging to clear out all the unwanted subscriptions. The flip side is that many do not know which companies from those subscriptions share their data with third parties. Simple Opt-Out, Deseat.me and Mine are great resources to help you clean up your online presence. 

Google has a lot more data on you than Facebook. But you do have the ability to limit this info from getting out. For example, you can turn off location tracking, voice searches, and other features, view and edit your preferences, adjust your public profile, and download Google’s data hoard to see what they see.

Also, data breaches occur often, and users are unaware of them in many instances unless it is significant enough to hit the mainstream media. Check if your email was compromised, backup important emails and change your password. Ideally, consider decommissioning the affected email and creating a new one with a privacy-respecting service.

USE HARDENED FIREFOX ON YOUR COMPUTER

Two reliable and privacy-respecting web browsers are Firefox (Hardened) and Tor Browser if you need an extra layer of anonymity.

To harden Firefox, follow these instructions:

Install Recommended Add-ons:

  1. Privacy Badger: Stops Tracking
  2. uBlock Origin: Block Ads and Trackers
  3. Cookie AutoDelete: Automatically Delete Cookies
  4. Decentraleyes: Block Content Delivery Networks
  5. Terms of Service; Didn’t Read: Be Informed
  6. Ghostery: Blocks trackers and ads, protects your privacy, and speeds up page loads
  7. Snowflake: A system to defeat internet censorship
  8. I don’t care about cookies: Get rid of cookie warnings from almost all websites.
  9. MinerBlock: Blocks cryptocurrency miners all over the web.
  10. ClearUrls: automatically remove tracking elements from URLs to help protect your privacy when browsing the Internet.
  11. Privacy Redirect and LibRedirect: Redirects Twitter, YouTube, Instagram and more to privacy-friendly alternatives.
  12. BrowserSync: a free and open-source alternative to browser syncing tools offered by companies like Google, Firefox, Opera and others.

Unique Fingerprint Test – Test with Panopticlick

When you visit a webpage, your browser voluntarily sends information about its configuration, such as available fonts, browser type, and add-ons. If this combination of information is unique, it may be possible to identify and track you without using cookies.

There are many other tweaks, but these should be enough for safe, secure, and private browsing.

METADATA REMOVAL
  1. ExifCleaner: an open-source graphical app that uses ExifTool to remove EXIF metadata from images, videos, and PDF documents using a simple drag-and-drop interface. It supports multi-core batch processing and dark mode.
  2. MAT2: a free software which allows the removal of metadata of image, audio, torrent, and document file types. It provides both a command-line tool and a graphical user interface via an extension for Nautilus, the default file manager of GNOME. 
PASSWORD MANAGEMENT

A strong password should contain sixteen or more characters consisting of upper and lower case letters, numbers, and special characters and should not be reused anywhere. This, of course, means that your password is impossible to remember. On the other hand, weak passwords can be quickly and easily cracked through various methods, including FREE and legal software available on the internet. The solution to this paradox is to use a password manager.

A password manager is a program or service that allows you to record login information such as username, password, login link, and other information that varies from service to service. This data is stored in a way that makes it reasonably secure from data breaches. The advantage of this service is that you only need to remember one password to log in to your password manager, which should ideally be a passphrase.

A passphrase is a series of words rather than a single word. A good passphrase should be at least five random words. If you are using a passphrase as a master for your password manager, you only need to memorize that one passphrase. A good passphrase has the potential to take upwards of hundreds of years to brute force or guess.

HARDWARE

If you’re purchasing a new device or plan to upgrade your existing devices, purism provides modern, high-end laptops and mobile phones designed with privacy and security in mind. USB security keys provide:

  1.  Strong 2FA
  2. Multi-factor / Passwordless Authentication
  3. Touch-to-Sign

Did you know that a tiny computer inside your CPU has full access to your P.C.’s memory, display, network, and input devices? It’s called Intel ME (Intel Management Engine) and comes with many vulnerabilities. Purism laptops protect you against Intels’ little black box.

For those of you who like tracking your fitness, did you know that Google purchased Fitbit for $2.1 billion? Gadgetbridge is an alternative if you don’t want to share your health and wellness data with Google.

CLOUD STORAGE

Google Drive, One Drive, and Dropbox are not encrypted, and these big data companies have full access to your data. Here are some alternative open-source cloud storage solutions:

  1. Nextcloud (self or cloud-hosted)
  2. Owncloud (self or cloud-hosted)
  3. Cryptee 
  4. Cryptpad
WHAT ABOUT YOUR MOBILE DEVICE?

Want to enjoy a more secure mobile experience? As stated above, you must decide which is more important, convenience, familiarity or privacy. You cannot have it all. 

Here are some resources we recommend for your mobile devices if you don’t own a Purism device. (Some applications mentioned below are also available for Windows and Linux but may not be available for iOS and Mac OS)

  1. Switch from Google Chrome to Bromite or Tor Browser. For iOs – SnowHaze
  2. Switch from Google Keep, One Note, etc., to Turtl, Simplenote or Standard Notes
  3. Switch from Google Play to F-Droid
  4. Switch from iOS App Store to Alt Store
  5. Switch from Google Search to DuckDuckGo
  6. Switch from Google Forms to Forms.ID or DocAssemble
  7. Switch from Google Maps and Waze (owned by Google) to Maps.me
  8. Switch from WhatsApp and Telegram to:
  9. Use Onionshare or Wormhole for Private File Sharing
  10. Switch from Gmail, Hotmail, Yahoo, etc., to Protonmail, Tutanota. If you want to use your Gmail and not be privy to Google’s trackers, import your accounts to K9-Mail
  11. If you want ultimate privacy, switch your Android O.S. to Calyx O.S. N.B. If you change your stock Android to Calyx, Lineage, or Graphine, use Plexus to track what apps support de-Googled operating systems.
  12. Use Bitwarden Password Manager
  13. Disable Ok Google and Google Assistant
  14. Test your browsers Fingerprint with Panopticlick
  15. Use Blokada to block ads on your browser and apps
  16. Use Netguard no-root firewall for your Android device
  17. Use Mullvad or IVPN to encrypt your internet traffic
  18. Download Scrambled Exif to remove the metadata from your images before sharing them
Mobile Device Settings
iOS 14
  • Apple ID: Password & Security: Two-Factor Authentication: On
  • Apple ID: iCloud: Disable everything
  • Apple ID: Find My: Share My Location: Off
  • Wi-Fi: Ask to Join Networks: Off
  • Wi-Fi: Auto-Join Hotspot: Off
  • Cellular: SIM PIN: Create a custom PIN
  • Bluetooth: Off unless needed.
  • Notifications: Show Previews: Never
  • General: Software Update: Automatic Updates: On
  • General: AirDrop: Off unless needed, then restricted to contacts.
  • General: AirPlay & Handoff: Disable everything unless needed
  • General: Background App Refresh: Off
  • Display & Brightness: Auto-Lock: the shortest option you can reasonably put up with. Do not set it to leave the screen turned on.
  • Touch ID & Passcode: Use Touch ID For iPhone Unlock: Off
  • Touch ID & Passcode: iTunes & App Store: Apple Pay: Off
  • Touch ID & Passcode: iTunes & App Store: Password AutoFill: Off
  • Touch ID & Passcode: Turn Passcode On: Try to set a password if possible; otherwise, use a six-digit PIN
  • Touch ID & Passcode: Require Passcode: Immediately
  • Touch ID & Passcode: Allow Access When Locked: the fewer, the better
  • Touch ID & Passcode: Erase Data: Enabled (Beware of this setting, make sure you understand it).
  • Siri & Search: Disable everything completely
  • Exposure Notifications: Disable unless required or you want to opt-in.
  • Privacy: Location Services: Disable everything except navigation apps, and set those to “While Using”
  • Privacy: Location Services: System Services: Disable all (it would not cause any problems)
  • Privacy: review all the other settings and ensure apps only have access to the settings they need. Otherwise, disable them. Disable as many as you can without breaking the app functionality.
  • Privacy: Analytics & Improvements: Share iPhone Analytics: Off
  • Privacy: Analytics & Improvements: Improve Siri & Dictation: Off
  • Privacy: Analytics & Improvements: Share iCloud Analytics: Off
  • Privacy: Advertising: Limit Ad Tracking: On
  • Privacy: Advertising: Reset Advertising Identifier
  • Finally, scroll back to Screen Time: Content & Privacy Restrictions: Enable, and set every setting to “Don’t Allow.” This will ensure that Apple doesn’t make any changes to your privacy settings automatically when updating the O.S.
  • Delete every unused app you can.
Android 9.0

NOTE: Due to the nature of Android devices, the layout of the menu may vary by device:

  • Connections: Bluetooth: Off
  • Connections: NFC and payment: Off
  • Connections: More connection settings: Nearby device scanning: Off
  • Connections: More connection settings: printing: default print service: Off
  • Connections: More connection settings: Private DNS
  • Notifications: (select app): In-app notification settings: Show: Name only or No name or message
  • Lock screen: Screen lock type: Try to set a password if possible, otherwise use a six-digit PIN
  • Lock screen: Smart Lock: Don’t enable
  • Lock screen: Secure lock settings: Lock Automatically: Yes
  • Lock screen: Secure lock settings: Lock Automatically: Auto factory reset
  • Lock screen: Secure lock settings: Lock Automatically: lock network and security: On
  • Lock screen: Secure lock settings: Lock Automatically: Show lockdown options: Off
  • Lock Screen: Contact information: Leave this blank unless you have a good reason not to
  • Biometrics and security: No biometrics at all
  • Biometrics and security: Find My Device: I recommend no unless you’re prone to losing your devices
  • Biometrics and security: Secure folder: Couldn’t hurt, but up to you
  • Biometrics and security: Secure startup: Enable
  • Biometrics and security: Encrypt SD Card: Yes
  • Biometrics and security: Privacy: Location: Off (If you need it on for certain apps, then enable it but disable location permissions in all the apps that don’t need it)
  • Biometrics and security: Privacy: App permissions: Go through each app and reevaluate its permissions
  • Biometrics and security: Privacy: Send diagnostic data: Off
  • Biometrics and security: Other security settings: Set up SIM card lock
  • Biometrics and security: Other security settings: Security policy updates: Auto-update
  • Accounts and backup: Backup and restore: Back up my data
  • Advanced features: Send SOS messages
  • Advanced features: Emergency mode

Once you have completed the recommendations above, you will have taken a significant step toward protecting your data and strengthening your privacy.

Note – you are not completely eliminating tracking and data collection but, reducing them as much as you reasonably can.

Remember, your privacy is your responsibility. You may not get any recourse bringing a case against Big Data corporations!

In 2017 a judge dismissed a lawsuit accusing Facebook of tracking users’ activity, saying responsibility was on plaintiffs to keep browsing history private.

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