Talking About Online Privacy

| June 11, 2013

We’ve been talking about online privacy a lot recently, with the latest news about the NSA mining our phone and internet records. It’s raised some important questions that need to be answered, not just as individuals, but as librarians and educators:

How much privacy do we want to sacrifice for access to information, convenience, or national security?
How much choice do we have in the matter?
How do we stay educated about our privacy options in a constantly changing landscape?

I don’t have any answers, but I can offer a few tips and resources to help you better protect your online footprint and personal data.

In The Library

When you’re using a public computer, always set your browser settings to private.  This doesn’t keep websites from tracking you, but it does erase your history and cookies from the computer after you close the browser.

In Firefox, you can do this in one of two ways:

  • Tools > Start Private Browsing
  • Tools > Options > Privacy

In Chrome, click the toolbar (three solid lines in the upper right hand corner), and open a new Incognito window.

At Home

On your personal computer, you can go a step further and install a few quick browser extensions to prevent websites and marketers from tracking your activities.  Each just takes a few moments to set up, and they’re easy to uninstall if you decide it’s not for you.

AdBlock works on both Chrome and Firefox and can be customized to block tracking from major sites including Facebook.

HTTPS Everywhere encrypts the data you send back and forth to websites, making it somewhat harder to track.

DoNotTrackMe is another free extension that blocks companies from tracking your behavior online. It works in Safari and IE, as well as Firefox and Chrome.

On Your Mobile Device

This is a bit of a new arena, isn’t it? The extensions that work to protect your laptop or desktop browser don’t work on mobile devices. I can’t endorse any of these options, but here’s what I’ve found so far. Maybe you have something to add?

WhisperSystems create apps that will encrypt phone calls and text messages for Android.

OnionBrowser is a secure web browser for iOS.

ChatSecure is a free encrypted IM service for iOS.

Facebook

If you have a Facebook account, it’s worth understanding how the company makes money from the data you provide. This Lifehacker article does a good job of explaining the link between advertisers and your personal information, and offers a few quick steps to protect your privacy.

I want to add a few caveats before I finish this up.

First of all, I don’t believe any of these steps are the ultimate panacea for keeping your info private. But they’re worth exploring to see if they work for you. If you’re concerned about the NSA, you might consider other options. And if you’re ready to make some serious changes to your operating system and software usage, Prism Break offers a round up of free alternatives to all the major sites and software currently subject to government surveillance.

Secondly, these tips may not be right for you! It’s your choice how much information you choose to share online.

The library is a great place to learn about your options. Let’s keep each other up to date as new technology becomes available. Leave a comment if you have any ideas or feedback.

Sources:
Lifehacker
Reddit
Electronic Frontier Foundation
Prism-Break