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Can Google Be Trusted? Guide to Protecting Your Online Privacy

July 12, 2015

Since former NSA analyst Edward Snowden leaked evidence of the security agency’s covert surveillance of millions of Americans to journalist Glenn Greenwald last year, online privacy has become one of the tech sector’s most contentious issues.

Online Privacy Google Big Brother

Few issues in tech are as polarizing as online privacy, but the topic goes far beyond opinions about the security of personal data or how it should be used. In fact, online privacy (or the lack thereof) is shaping the future of search, whether you realize it or not.

Advertisers are desperate to plumb the depths of people’s personal lives in search of more accurate targeting, while many users are balking at how the monoliths of the tech sector are gathering, storing, and using their information. But what does the future hold, and should you be worried about how companies such as Google and Facebook are using your data?

Online Privacy is NOT a Crime

Although millions of people continue to willingly hand over their personal data to Facebook and Google without question, increasing numbers of people are beginning to question whether their data is truly safe.

Online privacy surveillance

Image via ireneogrizek.com

To assuage their concerns (and capitalize on the increasing desire for more secure online services), Apple and Google recently announced that the operating systems of their mobile devices would be encrypted by default. Encrypting user data means that information stored on such devices would be inaccessible to anyone but the user, even Apple and Google.

However, in what should have been hailed as a major step forward for the tech industry and privacy advocates, the move has instead been criticized and derided by lawmakers in Capitol Hill and across the country. Cathy Lanier, head of the Washington Metropolitan Police Department, claimed that iPhones and Android devices will now become the preferred tools of pedophiles and hardened criminals, and U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder also played the “think of the children” card.

These asinine comments were echoed by numerous other officials, including FBI Director James Comey, who said that individuals using an encrypted device were essentially placing themselves “beyond the law.”

Online privacy FBI seal

Apparently, not wanting law enforcement officials and three-letter agencies to have unrestricted access to your personal data automatically makes you a criminal.

Online Privacy and The Future of Search

There can be little doubt that law enforcement and the technology sector are likely to remain at loggerheads over whether user data is fair game or not. However, the privacy of the individual is not the only aspect of the debate. Indeed, the very future of search is predicated on users’ willingness to be tracked and monitored.

As I wrote in a previous post, Google Hummingbird was a huge leap for search, offering users increasingly personalized results that anticipate user queries based on prior activity, location, and numerous other factors. Doing so anonymously is impossible, and as recent evidence revealed, technology companies and the government have unprecedented access to your personal data.

Online privacy Google surveillance graffiti

This puts users in a difficult position – do you use potentially inferior services to maintain some semblance of privacy, or sacrifice the confidentiality of your data for the sake of ease and convenience?

HTTPS and Ranking Signals

Before Google and Apple pissed off the suits in Washington, it had announced that sites using the encrypted HTTPS protocol would be rewarded with better placement in the SERPs. However, the inclusion of HTTPS as a ranking signal was revealed as little more than lip service by Google at this year’s SMX East conference.

As Search Engine Land reported, Google’s Gary Illyes said that the HTTPS ranking signal affected only approximately 1% of all searches. He added that only 10% of all indexed sites used HTTPS, but that around 30% of front-page results made use of the protocol.

Although it’s a step in the right direction for Google, the true impact of HTTPS as a ranking signal remains negligible. Bing’s Vincent Wehren, however, recently stated that HTTPS will not affect placement in the SERPs at all – way to go, Bing.

Are Search and Online Privacy Mutually Exclusive?

Google’s desire to become the “Star Trek” computer is no secret. The folks at Mountain View have invested billions of dollars into R&D projects that will revolutionize the world as we know it. Unfortunately, such advances come at great cost, namely our ability to inhabit today’s exciting online environment and retain some semblance of privacy.

Every single advance in search technology is predicated on users relinquishing their online privacy. After all, Google cannot anticipate what we want before we want it without delving into our browsing histories, social media profiles, and even online purchasing habits.

Social Media Analytics: Nowhere to Hide

Even people who construct online personas or carefully monitor their social media usage in an attempt to maintain their privacy have nowhere to hide. Companies such as IBM are leveraging the power of big data and increasingly sophisticated analytics technology to infer even more about people than they already know.

Online privacy social media analytics IBM segments of one

For example, IBM’s proprietary social media analytics technology can determine, with a reasonable amount of accuracy, an individual’s personality type based on a sampling of just 200 tweets. Even publicly available archived data can be used to construct detailed psychographic profiles of people, as a study – which only accessed archived data from defunct social media network Friendster – recently demonstrated.

The ‘Nothing to Hide’ Fallacy

One of the most common arguments made by anti-privacy advocates (including the government and law enforcement agencies) is that you have nothing to fear if you have nothing to hide.

Although there are literally dozens of reasons why this position is worse than ridiculous, the simplest is also the best. As noted cryptographer and security expert Bruce Schneier noted, the “nothing to hide” fallacy is based on the mistaken premise that privacy exists to mask wrongdoing, when nothing could be further from the truth.

Online privacy United States of Surveillance

Image via popularresistance.org

The “nothing to hide” argument is among the government’s favorite arguments for its massive domestic surveillance operations (which routinely intercept personal data sent through popular online services such as those offered by Google, Microsoft and Apple).

Even if you have nothing to hide, you should still expect some degree of privacy without being labeled a criminal or a suspect.

Online privacy EFF why metadata matters

For more information about metadata, see “Why Metadata Matters” at EFF.org.

The Benefits of Online Anonymity

Whether you’re a die-hard online privacy advocate or haven’t really thought about it until now, there’s never been a better time to start taking the security of your data and your browsing habits seriously.

If you’re on the fence about the pros of online privacy, let’s take a look at some of the major benefits.

No Remarketing Ads

Let’s face it – even marketing professionals get sick and tired of online ads. At best, they’re an annoyance. At worst, they’re downright intrusive. While remarketing might be a blessing to advertisers, it’s a blight for people who don’t want to be relentlessly sold to as they go about their business online.

Since remarketing utilizes cookies to track users as they navigate the web, online privacy countermeasures effectively prevent advertisers from hounding you.

Your Secrets Stay Secret

Let’s say you or a loved one has an intimate and highly personal medical problem. Sure, you’ve probably made an appointment to see your primary care physician, but in the meantime, the siren song of radically misdiagnosing yourself online is just too tempting. So, you perform a search for your symptoms.

Online privacy radically misdiagnosing your children

All jokes aside, you find the information you’re looking for, and breathe a sigh of relief that it’s not Ebola or the current disease du jour. However, while you might rest easy until your appointment, your search data has been recorded, categorized and sold to data brokers who want to sell you things.

This might be fine and dandy if you’re in the market for a new jacket or a vacation, but how do you feel about your personal medical history being used as a marketing tool?

Online Products Are Cheaper

Ever tried to book a flight, only to find that the price has changed in the time it took to get your credit card out of your wallet? This isn’t (just) a result of airlines’ policies of bleeding you dry for every last cent they can get their hands on.

Online privacy ecommerce

Image via alprussia.com

Many ecommerce sites use your location data and browsing history to adjust their pricing, meaning that you could end up paying more than someone else for the same product. The Wall Street Journal highlighted this practice two years ago, and while not all retailers use these tactics, many do. Why should you pay more for a product or service than someone else, based purely on your location?

Peace of Mind

Of course, the most obvious benefit of online privacy is that, if you care about such things, you’ll likely feel a hell of a lot better about accessing the web securely. The peace of mind that comes from taking your internet privacy seriously is its own reward.

The Disadvantages of Online Privacy

As much as it pains me to admit it, there are a couple of drawbacks to online privacy.

Increased Potential for Surveillance

The first disadvantage to internet privacy countermeasures is also the most serious – namely, that by “disappearing” from sight, you’re effectively risking placing yourself under even greater scrutiny.

Online privacy repeal the PATRIOT Act and restore the Constitution

Image © AFP

Such behavior is considered unusual, and may result in greater focus being placed on your online activities. This is especially true if you utilize online privacy tools such as Tor, an encrypted network that the FBI and NSA have spent years attempting to subvert.

Decreased Site Functionality

There are dozens, if not hundreds, of plugins and browser extensions that can protect your online privacy (see final section for my personal recommendations). However, using these tools can actually result in some sites failing to work properly.

To some, this is a mere inconvenience and a price worth paying. To others, however, this is often the straw that breaks the camel’s back, forcing them to begrudgingly uninstall them and give up on maintaining their privacy online.

Reduced Social Interaction

No, I’m not talking about holing up in your apartment and covering the windows with tinfoil, I’m referring to withdrawing from social media.

Online privacy quit Facebook

Image via Fast Company

As sites such as Facebook and Twitter are often the most egregious offenders when it comes to compromising the security of your data, it should come as no surprise that some people turn their backs on these services altogether. Doing so in this day and age can be a considerable sacrifice, and one that can mean less interaction with family and friends. If you’re a serious Facebook user, consider how “disappearing” would affect your everyday life. Is this a sacrifice you’d be willing to make?

Tools to Protect Your Online Privacy

If you want to start taking your online privacy seriously, here are some tools that can help you accomplish this.

Browsers

  • Tor: A modified version of the Firefox browser that masks your IP address by means of an encrypted proxy relay system, making it difficult for prying eyes to intercept your data or determine your location. Available for Windows, OS X and Linux.

Plugins and Extensions

  • HTTPS Everywhere: A simple extension that forces your browser to use the more secure HTTPS protocol whenever possible.
  • Disconnect.me: Another excellent browser extension that prevents sites from tracking you and gathering your personal data. WARNING: May interfere with how certain sites function.

Search Engines

  • DuckDuckGo: A superb alternative to Google, this browser was built with privacy in mind. For more information, visit Donttrack.us.
  • Ixquick: A secure, anonymous search engine hosted in the Netherlands. Not as effective as DuckDuckGo, unfortunately.

Email

  • Guerilla Mail: Disposable email addresses that feature strong encryption.
  • Neomailbox: A secure email service for Outlook and other email clients, hosted in Switzerland.

Instant Messaging

  • Cryptocat: Superb secure IM client.
  • TorChat: Tor’s secure IM service, which requires Tor for use. Not the easiest software to install if you’re unfamiliar with Tor.

There are many, many more services than those I’ve included here, but if you’re curious, this list should serve as a good starting point.

Behind Closed Doors

If you’ve never given much thought to how tech companies like Google use your personal information, now might be a good time to start. As search technology becomes increasingly sophisticated, the security of your data could be jeopardized. Are you willing to sacrifice your online privacy for the sake of new tools and features?

Are you taking steps to protect your online privacy? Got any suggestions for tools or services that protect your online identity? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Dan Shewan

Originally from the U.K., Dan Shewan is a journalist and web content specialist who now lives and writes in New England. Dan’s work has appeared in a wide range of publications in print and online, including The Guardian, The Daily Beast, Pacific Standard magazine, The Independent, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and many other outlets.