In the post-Snowden world, it’s painfully apparent that espionage is a very real threat to everyone. It is known by a nicer name now—surveillance—but espionage it is. People and agencies that shouldn’t have access to your private information have it and want to keep the fact secret from you.
In this article, you will learn why it is necessary to remain as secure and anonymous online as possible and how to achieve that. You will see what services you can use for your protection and what simple advice you can follow to make your Internet presence safer.
Why is online security as important as real life security?
No one in their right mind would tell everyone listening about everything they do, everywhere they go, everyone they meet, not to mention more sensitive information like their address and the time there’s nobody home.
But this is exactly what happens on the Internet: your Internet service provider (ISP) knows what websites you visit, how often, and how much time you spend on them. This information can be easily obtained by law enforcement, which is especially true for countries that, like the US, have legislation aimed at making such a transfer of citizens’ private data easier.
Just because it is virtual doesn’t mean it can’t hurt you: prison sentences over posts on the Internet are not unheard of under more oppressive governments. It doesn’t mean, though, that those of us who don’t live in or travel to such states can afford to be careless.
What can I do to protect myself online?
Unfortunately, common sense alone is not enough when your ISP has all of your data logs and knows what you do online. Nowadays, real security can’t be achieved without some technical tools.
Today, I am going to tell you all you need to know about two of them: VPNs and Tor.
A virtual private network, or a VPN, is a service that allows people to hide their real IP-addresses from websites they visit. By connecting to a VPN server, you make it appear as if you are accessing a website not from your physical location but from another place, most often from a different country. It allows you not only to hide your presence online but also to bypass certain regional restrictions.
VPNs are all but mandatory for people who live or stay in states with heavy censorship, such as Iran and China, in order to have access to unbiased news sources.
What is more, a VPN encrypts all Web traffic that goes through its tunnel. It means that it is impossible to tell for an outside observer (including your ISP) what you are doing online.
Most good VPNs are not free, however. There are some, as this TunnelBear review
shows, that offer a free version, but it is usually inferior to the paid one and lacks in either traffic, speed, or both.
Things to consider when choosing a VPN:
The provider should have a strict no-logs policy. It means that no data about the time, duration, and other specifics of your activity on the Net is kept by the provider and thus cannot be used in any way against you. Ideally, claims of no-logs policy should be confirmed by third-party audits. This is the most important factor, and you should never choose a provider that does keep your logs.
- OpenVPN is the protocol to go for. Not to get into technicalities, it is the most secure one, and most VPN services support it.
- Your VPN app should have a kill switch function. What it means is that if your VPN tunnel fails or disconnects for whatever reason, any unencrypted traffic will be prevented from going to or from your device. Otherwise, the real IP may get exposed at a disconnect, which would disclose the user’s location and make them vulnerable to phishing scams.
- Depending on the devices you use most to surf the Web, pay attention to what operating systems and platforms a VPN service supports. You also might want to check how many simultaneous connections the provider promises (according to this NordVPN review, the number usually ranges from 2 to 6) if you access the Internet on more than one device.
- Using a VPN affects your Internet speed negatively. The further away you are from the server you connect to, the slower your speed becomes. Thus, it is wise to check if there are servers in locations close to yours. Besides, some providers offer a free trial or a guaranteed refund for a period of time. You can use those to check if you are satisfied with the speeds you get.
Another Internet privacy tool is Tor. Like a VPN, it encrypts its user’s data but also provides additional security by routing it through several nodes on its way to conceal the user’s identity. It is run by volunteers and is free.
However, it is not a recommended alternative to using a VPN for most users. The anonymity comes at a price and lowers your speed. Understandably, since Tor has to encrypt the traffic once for each node it passes through, it is noticeably slower than a virtual network that only encrypts the message one time.
Lower Internet speed is not the only downside. Tor is notorious for its connection to the so-called dark web and can be used for engaging in illegal activities. As the example of Silk Road suggests, it is still possible to trace what one is doing while using Tor.
Such an association with more nefarious practices makes Tor somewhat of a double-edged sword: on one hand, it provides more anonymity, but on the other, it also makes you more of a priority in the eyes of the surveillance agencies. To them, if you use Tor, then you have something to hide. It ups the uniqueness of your device and makes you easier to track.
4 simple tips that will boost your online safety
1. Use an antivirus
Not using antivirus software is like leaving your door wide open. It sounds very obvious, but according to Webroot, as many as one half of Americans do not use such software.
Without an antivirus, your device can be afflicted with all kinds of malware: keyloggers and Trojans and ransomware, and none of them are pleasant to deal with. So it’s essential to keep your antivirus software updated at all times.
2. Use complex passwords
You need a strong and unique password for every account you have. It would be ideal if you could remember them all without writing them down, but it may get unsustainable if you have a lot of accounts.
To counter this, you may use a password manager to generate and store all your passwords. Since storage must be encrypted, you will need but a single password to access it—way simpler to remember than forty!
3. Avoid public hotspots
As good as free public Wi-Fi sounds, it can be extremely dangerous. Even a legit hotspot may be unsafe if the traffic isn’t encrypted, let alone an “evil twin”—a hotspot set up by criminals, copying the name and address of a real one.
If you absolutely have to use a public hotspot, make sure you have a VPN app installed on your device. This way, you will be able to negate some of the danger.
4. Warn your parents
Unfortunately, elderly people fall for online scams very often. This is why you must make sure that your relatives and friends of advanced age are able to tell when someone is trying to cheat them on the Internet.
They should know not to give their personal information to anyone and not to trust everything they are told online.
With the importance and pervasiveness of the Internet also grow its dangers and pitfalls. Today it is necessary to protect oneself online, and this necessity won’t go away tomorrow. There is more than one way to keep your private info private.
To summarize, there is a choice between VPNs and Tor networks. Both are used to encrypt your traffic and to hide your location. Tor, while having the advantage of being free and using more layers of encoding, is much slower and too reliant on unpaid volunteers to keep it going. Generally, unless you are a whistleblower or a reporter covering a dangerous topic, a good VPN should suffice for everyday use.
Even with special software to keep you safe, you should always listen to your common sense. Remember to use antiviruses, password managers and to stay away from public Wi-Fi hotspots. Also, it is a good idea to enlighten your family members about the basics of Net-safety.
It is not hard to maintain your privacy. Once you start doing it, you’ll be amazed by how natural it feels.
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