How to stay safe online

A quick guide for the paranoid and those aspiring to keep themselves protected in a digital-first world.

In my experience there are three types of people:

  1. Those who don’t want to know about progress
  2. Those who do but are very cautious
  3. Those who jump in with both feet

Which type are you?

I am probably the third type although I use protection at all times so I can enjoy experimentation safely. I do this because I relish progress and have even been recognised recently by my peers ;-0

 

However, jumping in blindly without considering what could be happening can quickly end up in lots of tears, or worse, cost you your livelihood. Especially in a world where everything is run by computers, outcomes on everything from your pension to groceries is determined by algorithms, your digital footprint matters more than you may think. So tread carefully out there and be skeptical when it comes to enjoying ‘free’ offers combining amazing value at no cost.

If a service is free, you are likely the product they are making money from.

“But Axel”, I hear you say, “surely big, global corporations wouldn’t put me at risk?”. Actually, there are a few that happily sell you out, in fact it is their business model.

Buyer Beware — you maybe sold

To keep this post within convenient matinee reading duration, I provide a list of places to avoid if you value your privacy and don’t want to end up having habits, routines, friends, personal information, etc shared:

Facebook, Snapchat, Twitter, Foursquare/Swarm, Gmail, Google, Outlook.com, AOL, Yahoo!, Tumblr, Evernote (find out why it’s on this list), Keepass (read why it’s on this list), many many more.

Most of these, especially Foursquare, have a business that sells data. Their interest lies in getting you to part with as much of it as possible without recognising by making it look like games or quizzes or just plain hide it.

Google’s model relies on the fact that if you cast wide enough a net and add irresistible bait in form of high levels of free value, you can use this data to sell your core service better— advertising.

Microsoft has shown their colours clearly with the recent Windows 10 release and it’s lack of privacy protecting ‘cloud’ features. The defaults are still leaving you very exposed and benefit them more than you.

Again, if the offer is free and you still get heaps of benefit, maybe — just maybe — it is because you and your data is being sold.

Open Source and Privacy-friendly Alternatives

To provide balance and bring this little guide to a close, here is a list of places where you can get your ‘fix’ of amazing value without the cost and without giving away your data.

If this sounds contrary to what I have just been writing about, you are absolutely correct. Also, you are wrong.

You can have your cake and eat it now.

Thank you to a tireless group of wonderful people who have invested their time and effort into open source projects and services supported by donations and crowd funding, you do have an alternative to the big players. Just remember to spare a moment’s thought (or perhaps a contribution too?) that without people like this you would have to be of the first type I mentioned and become stuck.

Some also demonstrate that you can run a global business that is trading ethically and for the benefit of the many, not just shareholders.

I provide a little table with my top recommendations split into categories. Please don’t take this list as final or complete. Listing services do not constitute any endorsement of them from me. I neither receive payment nor other benefits from listing them here.

The list comprises both Open Source software and commercial, closed source services.

Email: Protonmail.ch

Free, encrypted and based outside the US and EU. Great user experience and interface, even on mobile. Business and team plans are available too. You can easily send fully encrypted emails to anyone by email without them requiring special software. You can even set them to self-destruct after a time. It comes with address book and labels much like Gmail.

Runner-up: Mail-in-box (self-hosted), Fastmail (hosted, non-free, tip-of-hat to Aral Balkan)

File sharing and cloud storage: TresorIt.com

This service is providing ‘zero-knowledge’ encryption to keep your data fully secured and offers a 1GB free plan (updated link) as well as business paid plans. Nobody apart from you can see the data — you hold the only key. So make sure you don’t loose this. You can securely share files with others. TresorIt also offers a reduced price to NGOs and not for profits enterprises.

Runner-up: OwnCloud.com, NextCloud.com (tip-of-hat to Purism)

Chat and Messaging: Telegram.org

Although there are now a few end-to-end encrypted chat apps, like WhatsApp, Telegram remains the only one I know of that is fully open source and not run by a large corporation or for profit. It has mobile apps and desktop apps, as well as many features you have come accustomed to by other modern chat apps. Telegram works pretty much with any device or software.

Runner-up: iMessage (Apple-only), Signal (tip-of-hat to Aral Balkan, Glenn Rempe)

Mobile / Smartphone: Fairphone

Most smartphones are built by huge global corporations, using child labour and supplies from even less ethical sources. It’s a big problem that remains mostly hidden and Apple, Samsung et al are slow to address it because their profits rely on it. Having said that, it applies to many more categories than mobile phones.

For food, we have ‘fair trade’ and for technology we now have Fairphone. It’s a fabulous, modular, open and ethical product run by wonderful people who came together to provide a real alternative. It runs Linux or Android and you can fix it easily yourself if it should break or you can upgrade parts.

Runner-up: Apple iPhone (yes, really — thanks to Apple’s commitment to improving its supply chain and treatment of workers)

Mobile phone provider (UK): giffgaff.com

Just a quick mention of an alternative to the large, faceless and often low-value for money providers: giffgaff. It’s a virtual provider, running on O2 in the UK, that strips out the stuff you hate and puts rewards and community front-end-center of their business.

Operating System: Linux (choose your flavour)

Linux has come a long way and remains the software of choice to run on computers and devices of people that want to be in control. There are many variations and you can easily find something that suits your purposes, along with thousands of applications and games.

My favourite is Debian, which one is yours? 🙂

Runner-up: FreeBSD

Bonus

Content management: WordPress.org

Chances are you have heard of this easy to use website content management system before — half of websites whose CMS we know run it.

Invoicing and billing: InvoiceNinja.com

An open source software you can host yourself or enjoy the free cloud service, with a paid upgrade to even more features available also.

Project Management: Taiga.io

Agile project management is how stuff gets done these days and Taiga lets you get yourself organised easily using a self-hosted software or cloud hosted service.

Ad/Tracking Blocker: Better (by ind.ie) (Apple only)

Better is a tracker blocker for Safari on iPhone, iPad, and Mac. It protects you from behavioural advertising and malicious web content by enforcing the principles of Ethical Design. (tip-of-hat & thank you to Aral Balkan)

Social Networking: ello

The network for creatives and creators.

Computers: Purism

Laptops and Tablets That Do Not Track You (tip-of-hat toAral Balkan)

Anti-virus: ClamAV

This has been an indispensable product from a great community and protects both servers and desktops alike.

Epilogue

I trust you found my little overview helpful and it is by no means complete. So feel free to recommend alternatives and in any case, I am looking forward to your comments.

Updated with ad-blockers, social networking, computing hardware as well as messaging alternative. Tip-of-the-hats to various people who provided valuable comments and links to alternatives. Keep them coming!

(Post originally appeared on medium.com)


Also published on Medium.

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