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Take Control of Your Online Privacy
Learn what's private online (not much)—and what to do about it!
Do you have anything to hide? Whether or not you think you do, your online activities are certainly tracked — and not just by well-meaning sites who want to keep you logged in or by marketing firms who want to show you targeted ads for products that you likely want to buy. Don’t believe us? Watch Joe Kissell’s “None of Your Business” sketch below for proof (and some funny bits!).
In the full book, Joe helps you gain perspective on what is reasonable to expect about online privacy and develop a sensible online privacy strategy, customized for your needs. He then explains how to enhance the privacy of your Internet connection, Web browsing, email messages, online chatting, social media interactions, and file sharing. To bring home the most important privacy no-nos, Joe also encourages you to take The Pledge (OK, it’s tongue-in-cheek, though it would have saved numerous politicians from ridicule and career-ending gaffes). Plus, parents will find important reminders about how your online actions can affect your children, far into the future.
Teach This Book! Once you’re satisfied with your own online privacy strategy, you may want to help friends or colleagues improve theirs. To that end, Take Control of Your Online Privacy includes links to a free one-page PDF cheat sheet and to a PDF-based slide deck that you can show on any computer or mobile device screen.
Whether you have a Mac or PC, iOS or Android device, set-top box, cell phone, or some other network-enabled gadget, Take Control of Your Online Privacy has the advice that ordinary people need to handle common privacy needs (secret agents should really look elsewhere). You’ll receive savvy advice about:
Why worry? Learn about who wants your private data, and, more important, why they want it. Even if you don’t believe you have anything to hide, you almost certainly do, in the right context. Would you give just anyone your financial records or medical history? Didn’t think so.
Set your privacy meter: Develop your own set of personal privacy rules — everyone has different privacy buttons, and it’s important to figure out which are important to you.
"Joe Kissell nails it. Take Control of Your Online Privacy is the first comprehensive and practical guide to protecting your privacy in the digital age. Joe helps you make and implement the right privacy choices for your life."
—Rich Mogull, CEO of Securosis
Manage your Internet connection: Understand privacy risks, prevent snoops, and take key precautions to keep your data from leaking out.
Browse and search the Web: Learn what information is revealed about you when you use the Web. Avoid bogus Web sites, connect securely where possible, control your cookies and history, block ads, browse and search anonymously, and find out who is tracking you. Also, learn how to protect your passwords and credit card data.
Send and receive email: Find out how your email could be intercepted, consider when you want email to be extra private (such as when communicating with a doctor or lawyer), find out why Joe doesn’t recommend email encryption as a solution to ordinary privacy needs (but find pointers for how to get started if you want to try it — or just encrypt an attachment, which is easier), get tips for sending email anonymously, and read ideas for alternatives to email.
Talk and chat online: Consider to what extent any phone call, text message, or online chat is private and find tips for enhancing your privacy when using these channels.
Watch your social media sharing: Social media is by definition social, so there’s a limit to how private it can be. Understand the risks and benefits of sharing personal information online, tweak your settings, and consider common-sense precautions.
Share files: What if you want to share (or collaborate on) a contract, form, or other document that contains confidential or personal information? Find out about the best ways to share files via file server, email attachment, cloud-based file sharing service, peer-to-peer file sharing, or private cloud.
Help your children: As a parent, you know a lot about your children and you have access to lots of photos of them. But that doesn’t mean you should share everything without a thought to your children’s privacy needs, either now or in the future, since data never disappears from the Internet. Find a few key tips to keep in mind before you tell all.
iPad & Kindle
About the Author
Joe Kissell has written numerous books about the Macintosh, including many popular Take Control ebooks. He's also Senior Editor of TidBITS and a Senior Contributor to Macworld, and previously spent ten years in the Mac software industry.
Table of Contents
Read Me First
This book explains potential privacy risks in everyday online activities like Web browsing and sending email, and suggests strategies for avoiding common pitfalls and improving online privacy. It was written by Joe Kissell, edited by Geoff Duncan, and published by TidBITS Publishing Inc.
“A book about online privacy? That’ll be pretty short!” my friend joked. It was his way of saying, “We both know there’s no such thing as privacy on the Internet.”
He’s not far from the truth, but to be fair, the illusion of privacy extends far beyond the world of computers and networks.
If you want complete privacy, go live in a remote cave without any electronics. Don’t build a fire, because the smoke could give away your location. Never step outside, because a satellite or a passing drone might snap your picture. And avoid all human contact, because you never know who might be a spy. I hope you packed plenty of food, water, and clothing, too—you won’t be getting any more!
In other words, there’s essentially no such thing as total privacy, online or otherwise. People have to interact with each other to survive, and every interaction reveals something about each participant.
I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t want it any other way. I like having family and friends who know me well, and who can get in touch with me whenever they want (or need) to. I like sharing thoughts and opinions with a wider audience online. And I like the convenience of using my computer, phone, or tablet to communicate, find directions, and make purchases anywhere in the world. All these things involve revealing information about myself, so I wouldn’t want complete privacy.
And yet, the Internet turns many of our everyday assumptions about privacy upside down. If I’m at home, I can close the curtains and feel reasonably confident that whatever I say or do inside my house won’t be seen or heard by anyone else unless I (or a family member) choose to reveal it. Not so with electronic communications. Whether I’m sending email, browsing the Web, or doing a video chat with a friend, the only safe assumption I can make is that strangers might be able to see that information—now or in the future.
Once something has traveled over the Internet in any way, it’s potentially out there forever—and potentially public. You can delete a file from your computer, but once data has gone into the cloud, there’s never a guarantee that all copies of it have been eternally expunged. In fact, it’s far more likely that any given piece of data on the Internet will live on indefinitely. Not only that, but data tends to escape even strong restraints—hence the saying “information wants to be free.”
To be brutally honest, someone who wants badly enough to learn what you’ve transmitted or received on the Internet can probably do so, given enough time, effort, and skill. Part of the reason for this book is to explain how your words, personal information, and activities could become known to individual strangers or even the public—and that knowledge may lead you to make different choices about how you use the Internet. But I’m not saying you must give up any hope of basic privacy. On the contrary, common-sense strategies—the Internet equivalent of drawing the curtains and locking your door—can significantly reduce the risk of having your personal information fall into unwelcome hands. And, when you have more sensitive or valuable data to protect, you can take appropriately stronger measures.
Of course, there are often trade-offs—you may lose convenience, valuable social interaction, and even (paradoxically) personal safety if you choose to keep certain information private. For example, the same technology that can reveal your whereabouts to advertisers could also help someone trying to rescue you during a natural disaster or other emergency. Privacy cuts both ways.
That’s why I don’t recommend attempting to lock down all electronic communication, all the time. You need the curtains open to see the sunlight, and you need the open Internet too.
This book isn’t a guide for the paranoid—or for people with outrageously sensitive or scary secrets to protect. It’s a book for ordinary people with ordinary privacy needs. You want to go about your business, enjoying the many benefits of modern technology without worrying that someone is snooping on you all the time—whether to sell you something or for more sinister reasons. That’s what I plan to help you do, regardless of whether you use a Mac or PC, iOS or Android device, set-top box, cell phone, or any of a thousand other network-enabled gadgets.
I focus more on general principles than on nitpicky settings, particular apps, or elaborate technological rituals. I offer examples and pointers to more information as appropriate, but I don’t dwell on minutiae. The lack of detailed, step-by-step instructions may come as a surprise to some readers, so let me spell out my reasons:
Privacy settings are a matter of choice. There’s no single right answer; each person’s decisions about what information to keep private and how to do so will be different from the next person’s.
Each app, operating system, and device has its own way of doing things. Spelling out how to configure the privacy settings in every email client, Web browser, telephony app, and other Internet-connected software—on every version of OS X, Windows, iOS, Android, and other operating systems—would take hundreds of dull pages. And all those instructions would go out of date as soon as the next software or hardware update appears!
I don’t want to give you a false sense of security. Although you can certainly take steps to dramatically increase your privacy, I don’t want you to think that some magical combination of software and settings will keep your online activities completely and permanently private. Knowledge and vigilance go a long way, however.
Think of this book as a primer on the things that affect your online privacy. It tells you what’s going on, how it pertains to you, and why you might care. More than that, it puts privacy issues in perspective. If you feel overwhelmed by privacy concerns, you can take control of your online privacy by replacing paranoia and guesses with knowledge and smart choices.
Because I live in the United States, many of my examples involve things I know or suspect to be the case here. But even though laws and policies vary from country to country, nearly everything I say here is applicable in some fashion to anyone in the world.
You can think of this book as being divided into general topics (the first four chapters) and specific topics (the rest). I recommend that you read the first four chapters before you do anything else in order to understand your overall privacy risks and the simple, preliminary steps you can take to reduce them. Then feel free to skip to whichever other chapters are of particular interest.
Think you have nothing to hide? Think again. Read Learn What You Have to Hide.
Find out who might be trying to invade your privacy. See Learn Who Wants Your Private Data (and Why).
Come up with a plan to deal with most common privacy issues in Develop a Privacy Strategy.
Block the broadest and most likely privacy risks. See Keep Your Internet Connection Private.
Surf and shop without compromising your personal information. Read Browse the Web Privately.
Reduce the chances that email will be read by anyone other than the intended sender and recipient. See Improve Email Privacy.
Reduce the chances of eavesdropping when using instant messaging and other audio, video, and chat services. Read Talk and Chat Privately.
Social may be another way to say “public,” but you need not give up all your privacy when using Facebook, Twitter, and other social networking services. See Keep Social Media Sort of Private-ish.
Cloud backups and syncing could involve privacy risks if you’re not careful. See Keep File Syncing and Backups Private.
There are many ways to share files online, but some of them may expose data you’d rather keep private. Read Share Files Privately.
If you have children, you have the additional responsibility to take control of their online privacy. See Maintain Privacy for Your Kids.
Share what you’ve learned about online privacy with your friends, family, or a large group. See Teach This Book.
Version 1.1 of this book, released about eight months after the original publication date, updates the book with the latest privacy-related information and adds numerous details. The most significant changes are as follows:
Added a note in Hackers about how to search for information on recent privacy breaches.
Included a tip in Big Brother with links to resources detailing government surveillance revelations.
Updated Fix the Easy Things to emphasize the importance of keeping one’s operating systems up to date with security fixes.
Replaced numerous graphics (see, for example, Encrypt Your Wi-Fi Connection) with spiffier versions.
Made several clarifications about speed and reliability in Use a VPN.
Added a sidebar, SSL Implementation Bugs, covering the serious SSL vulnerability Apple disclosed and fixed in February 2014.
Updated the sidebar Set-top Boxes and the Like to further discuss the Internet of Things (“smart” connected objects like light bulbs and thermostats).
Mentioned how a password manager can ensure that you Go to the Right Site.
Noted the improved Private Browsing option in Safari for iOS 7 in Private Browsing Modes.
Included information on iCloud Keychain in Protect Passwords and Credit Card Info.
In Browse Anonymously, added a note distinguishing between anonymity and untraceability, and mentioned a further Tor vulnerability.
Mentioned cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin in Shop Online Privately.
In Understand the Privacy Risks of Real-Time Communication, noted a potential vulnerability in audio and video chats, and added a sidebar, Security in iMessage and Other Apple Services.
Added “secret-sharing” apps to the list of areas of concern in Use Other Social Media Precautions.
Renamed “Create a Private Cloud” to Create a Personal Cloud and added information about several other products.
Many of the examples in this book are taken from the United States. Although laws and policies vary from country to country, nearly everything in this book is applicable in some fashion to anyone in the world.
This book could be a good start if you are unfamiliar with these matters, but it does not have the depth of technical detail that you require. The intention of this ebook is to help ordinary people address ordinary privacy concerns, within the scope of a short book.
There are lots of great ways to read our ebooks on these devices. For more details, please read our latest Device Advice.
Feel free to ask us if you have a question about this title!
How could we not publish such kind words? If you'd like to send us your comments (good or bad, though we hope they're all good), just click the Feedback link on the cover of your copy of the ebook. Be sure to let us know if we can publish your comment. Thanks!
This is a practical, readable, and even humorous guide for all of us. —Miraz Jordan, in her KnowIT review of the ebook
This ebook is written at a level that the average user can understand, and I found it enjoyable, informative, and useful. I think everyone who owns a computer or other device that is connected to the Internet in any way will benefit by reading this book. Especially with all the concerns nowadays about the NSA (Nothing's Secret Anymore). —Richard Rettke
March 18, 2014 -- At the moment, we have no particular plan for updating this ebook. However, depending on sales, customer questions, and changes in the technical landscape, we may decide to update it in the future. We'll post more information here once our plans become more specific.
—Tonya J Engst
April 12, 2014 --
The startling and disheartening news about the recently discovered Heartbleed Internet security vulnerability no doubt has you wondering, “What should I do? What can I do to protect myself and my data?” The answer is, “Change your passwords for the affected sites. But not necessarily immediately, and not all at once.” Why not immediately? Because the vulnerability affects a wide range of servers across the entire Internet, and not all of those affected servers have been patched—changing your password on an unpatched server simply means that your new password may be purloined just as easily as your old one. Instead, you should avoid logging in to unpatched sites and servers until they are patched, and change your password at that point. The TidBITS article The Normal Person’s Guide to the Heartbleed Vulnerability provides several links to help you figure out which servers are vulnerable and which have been patched, and provides guidance about what you should do to protect yourself and when you should do it.
Eventually, of course, you will have a bunch of passwords to change.
If you use password-management software, such as LastPass or 1Password, that software can help you with that unwelcome but essential task. (AgileBits, the developer of 1Password, has posted an Updating Your Site’s Password guide to help you with your labors.) Browse safely, my friends.
—Michael E. Cohen
August 30, 2013 --
In an interview with Chuck Joiner of MacVoices, Joe Kissell goes over some of the basic dos and don'ts that he offers in his latest book, Take Control of Your Online Privacy. Included are useful tips about email, Google, off-shore providers, Wi-Fi, and social media. Take a look or a listen (we'll know whether you did or not).
—Michael E. Cohen
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