How to play hide-and-seek online – tools to protect your privacy

Protecting our identity online is turning into a giant game of hide and seek.
Some care about their privacy and some don’t, but the fact is, we’re being watched: Google tracks our searches, Facebook records our whereabouts and the NSA allegedly keeps surveillance on our texts, emails and phone calls.
It’s been about a year since whistleblower Edward Snowden changed our perception of what it means to be private on the Internet, and it’s got us all asking: is there anywhere left to hide online?
The act of being watched by these corporations may scare us, but we’re also carelessly inviting Big Brother’s eyes into our devices. The apps we install on our phones ask us to access our location, and we mindlessly tap “Allow” without really reading what it’s asking. So how much do we really care about being tracked?
While a study released last September shows that 59 percent of Americans feel they can never be totally anonymous online, 86 percent of Internet users have taken some sort of action to either remove or hide their digital footprints.
The German government is even going to extremes by reportedly considering reverting to times of yore by using typewriters to protect themselves against spying. Russia’s Federal Guard Service is a year ahead of them, however, having already implemented typewriters and more paper documents to their practices. Smartphone cameras can still take pictures of paper, so even that retro method isn’t 100 percent secure.
And just by searching how to hide online, you could be put on an organization’s radar. German news outlets reported in early July that if you show interest in hiding your privacy, say by visiting the Tor website, the NSA could mark you for surveillance.
Needless to say, I’m now being watched.
VIDEO: Edward Snowden calls for more government watchdogs at SXSW
So instead of rejecting the Internet entirely, here are some tools you can use to keep hidden from prying eyes.
Personal Computer
Our browsers curate our sensitive information: from the Heartbleed Bug that made waves in April, and showed us how vulnerable our online passwords and credit card information are to mass security breaches, to the less alarming marketers that track our activity to coat our web pages with ads.
There are many options to wipe out your browsing activity, a newer one being the iCloak Stik. It’s currently being funded on Kickstarter, and has well surpassed its goal of $75,000 with over 1,660 backers. The product is a USB drive that plugs into any Windows, Linux or Mac computer and allows you to browse anonymously. Once installed after rebooting your computer, it routes your browsing data via the Tor or I2P anonymizing networks so it can’t be tracked.  It also randomizes your MAC (media access control) address per session so even the hardware can’t be traced. When you shut down an iCloak session, all of your browsing activity disappears, and it’s as if you were never using that computer.
Watch their Kickstarter video for a demonstration on how to use the product:  

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A similar tool already on the market is SurfEasy. The device also plugs into any computer’s USB port and let’s you browse the Internet privately. Or by logging into your account, you can use it on any mobile device. It works by encrypting your browsing sessions, keeps your IP address and location secret, and allows you to bypass Firewalls and access websites like Facebook if it’s blocked at work (Tsk, tsk). SurfEasy can start you off on their 500MB plan for free. To sign up, click here.
Search engines
Google is the most used search engine in the world, but it keeps tabs from what we search to what we click on. A more private engine that has picked up steam since the NSA revelations last year is DuckDuckGo. It won’t collect your personal information, track cookies or save IP addresses. Founded in 2008, the privacy-focused search engine recently came out with an updated interface and design for its site along with feature improvements including images, local search and auto-suggest. CEO Gabriel Weinberg said these updates are meant to make DuckDuckGo a competitor with Google.
If you have some seriously sensitive information to share via email, you may want to use a secure email service. highly recommends using the webmail service MyKolab. For $10 a month, your email and calendar information are kept secure from searches in a data center all the way in Switzerland using Open Standards within a NoSQL IMAP database. The service ensures that emails won’t be crawled for targeted ads and cannot be accessed by programs such as PRISM.
MyKolab doesn’t offer end-to-end encryption services, so if that’s something you’re interested in, you should use mail services like Thunderbird or Postbox. It’s easy to do, but it takes a lot of work. Check out the video below for a step-by-step process on how to do that.
The tedious process of encryption brings to mind: if you’re sharing something that sensitive, maybe you shouldn’t email it.
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Our phones leak out more personal information than most people realize. The metadata in photos we upload to Facebook, for example, can share our location, and Twitter can upload our entire address book to its servers.
The easiest thing to do is to change feature settings such as turning off access to your location on a Facebook post, but for users who want complete control of the privacy on their cell phone comes the BlackPhone. It’s the first smartphone that focuses on keeping everything on your device private. The phone went on sale last week and has already sold out of its initial inventory.
At $629 a pop, the Android device comes bundled with security features like Silent Circle’s secure voice and video calling and text messaging services, Disconnect’s VPN service and anonymizing web browser search, and SpiderOak’s cloud file storage and sharing platform. It runs on PrivatOS, which gives the user more control over what running apps can access and what they can do.
For a behind the scenes look at BlackPhone, watch the YouTube video below.
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Early reviews for the product are fairly positive and Ars Technica has deemed it “pretty damn secure.” Check out their thorough review of Blackphone here.
What other tools do you use to keep hidden on the Internet? Tell us in the comments section below, or tweet us at @AZTechBeat.
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