They’re watching us, we’re all suspicious as a matter of principle, privacy as long been a thing of the past.
Yes, all this could be material for a new conspiracy theory or a story about spies, but the sad truth is that this isn’t fiction; it’s day-to-day life.
They’re recording our conversations, scouring our social media, tracking us with the GPS in our phones…
This is the “brave new world” of the supposedly most developed countries, countries that want to control everything their citizens do.
While the Internet has brought many good things, it has also paved the way to a new era of global surveillance and immediate exchange of information.
Be that as it may, technology also offers us many opportunities for protecting ourselves from this surveillance and for communicating securely.
Much to their dismay, neither the American NSA nor the Spanish Hacienda, nor any other government agency has anything to do with what you say, nor, of course, do they have the right to collect and store your private information.
In today’s article we’re going to talk about different options for avoiding their surveillance. Because not only is your life your own, but so is your data. And, therefore, only you should decide who you share it with.
All this is not to say you cannot use social media sites or that the goal is to be completely opaque, without a single shred of information about you out there.
Bear in mind that you have to also evaluate the benefits of exposing yourself and that data can be used in many ways. This is exactly what counterespionage is: handing over the information you choose to give so that they know only what you want them to know.
In any case, taking control of your data and communications doesn’t have to be complicated. In fact, you just have to follow three steps:
- Be aware of what you share and of who is watching.
- Read up on the options available to you for avoiding this surveillance (you’re doing this by reading this article).
- And take action. You don’t need technical expertise for this last step, you just need to be open to changing a few habits and learning to use certain programmes and services.
By the way, for those who still think privacy is not important, or that spying and transparency are only concerns of people with something to hide:
That simply isn’t the case. You never know who will have access to the data being collected about you, and you don’t know when the next authoritarian government will come to power wherever you live.
It’s ultimately a question of security and personal sovereignty, of avoiding unjustified intervention in private property, of protecting your freedom of expression.
And it’s not difficult, either. There are a number of providers of encrypted email, instant messaging apps and VoIP services that are not hard to use or expensive, but are getting on the NSA’s nerves (for those who don’t know, the NSA is a US intelligence agency).
Apparently, people are unaware of its existence, or of the incredible security deficiencies in conventional email providers, instant messaging apps like WhatsApp or even VoIP services like Skype.
Switching to new services does not necessarily mean removing the old ones. Even at Tax Free Today we still use services that are not 100% secure (such as Facebook, WhatsApp and Skype).
It’s about being aware of their limitations and knowing when you can or want to use which one.
So, although for practical reasons, we still use Gmail for most email communication, the truly confidential ones are only sent with encrypted platforms like Protonmail.
Countries where your data is more secure and where third party access is more difficult
Before we get on to talking about the services themselves, I would like to briefly go over the countries with the highest data protection standards.
Of course, the service’s own technology is important, but it is worthless if the countries from which the businesses offering the services operate do not care about the protection of private data.
So, which countries are particularly safe? Where should the providers you choose be operating from?
Although Tax Free Today does not host its data in Switzerland, this country undoubtedly offers excellent conditions for doing so.
For example, the Swiss Federal Data Protection Act aspires to one of the highest data protection standards in the world. To obtain your data, petitioners must present a formal request.
It’s no coincidence that one of the most interesting email providers, Protonmail, is a Swiss creation.
3. The Netherlands
Tax Free Today is hosted by SiteGround, in the Netherlands, and is very comfortable there. Not only does the location in Central Europe play an important role, but the excellent data protection laws and the country’s great freedom of speech and press do, too. In terms of press freedom, the Netherlands is often at the top of the list.
There are even examples of Dutch hosting service providers who refused to take down websites because the authorities did not bother to provide all the necessary legal documentation. As a result, the government eventually refrained from closing the sites and the pages continued to exist.
Although being an EU member state is a possible disadvantage, Dutch laws go further than general EU regulations.
LibertyVPS does, too, in my opinion one of the best offshore hosters, which uses data centre in the Netherlands.
Unlike the Netherlands, Norway stands out for being free from EU intervention. Being a country with extremely high freedom of expression and press, data protection is also in good hands.
Cloud storage services such as Jottacloud, which we recommend, operate from Norway, placing particular emphasis on the fact that, being Norwegian, it can protect your customers’ data in a way that American companies with data centres in Europe cannot.
In Norway, any foreign government needs permission from a Norwegian court to be allowed to access to any private data, and this is rarely attempted. Since there is no mutual legal assistance agreement with the US, it is an interesting option, especially for American dissidents.
The leader in data protection is another Nordic country, Iceland. Although the recent financial crisis has hit it hard, the country is still the best alternative with regard to freedom of expression and privacy.
Strategically located between Europe and America, the country offers the best connections. Icelandic data protection legislation from the year 2000 could be considered one of the most restrictive data protection laws in the world, with strict privacy guarantees.
Using European regulations as a basis, but taking them further, it has abolished data storage requirements. Iceland is creating an area of “freedom of expression” in which companies and individuals can manage their pages securely.
Not only does what we at Tax Free Today think is the best hoster for privacy and freedom of expression, OrangeWebsite, operate from Iceland, but also the communication service Unseen.is, which we will explain here in more detail.
Make your day-to-day communication more secure with these 8 services
Now that we’ve talked about the countries that take your confidentiality most seriously, let’s move on to the next point, regarding the specific services you can use.
Of course, you have to bear in mind that total security does not exist.
However hard we can make life for spies by using encrypted services, this does not mean that mass processing power won’t allow them to decrypt individual emails in the future.
However, with each user encrypting their personal communication, it gets exponentially more difficult and expensive to continue watching people without a very good reason.
Not even the most powerful governments can develop a mass surveillance system if a large part of their users use encrypted services.
Below I set out 8 services you can start using in just a few minutes, without any prior technical expertise.
This list is in no way exhaustive and only contains services that we have already tried and actively used ourselves. There will undoubtedly be more options (I encourage you to comment and add your recommendations) and it is likely that there will be even better ones in the future.
Best of all, most of them are free or very cheap! Everyone can afford to send and receive information securely!
You’ve probably heard of Tor before (and no, I’m not talking about the hammer-wielding Norse god, Thor).
You might have heard it can be used to enter the Dark Web, to buy all kinds of things, from drugs to weapons, passports and any other illegal item you could think of (of course, in most cases these purchases don’t turn out well, so be careful).
Be that as it may, Tor goes further than the Dark Web. It’s an open network that lets you surf the internet without anyone bothering you, without anyone knowing where you’ve been.
In the best cases, you’ll combine Tor with a VPN, thereby getting a very high level of security (we talk about VPNs later on in this article).
One might think that the main criticism of Tor is its development by and support from the US government. However, as a peer-to-peer network that spans the globe, US influence is limited. Moreover, if you don’t live in the US or have any connection to it, you probably won’t be in its line of sight…
If you’re not convinced by this option, you can download a client from the website or use one of the many other options for surfing the Internet securely and without supervision.
Why don’t you try it out now? You can move undetected through tax-free.today using Tor, and read about how to increase your freedom and free yourself from the weight of the State.
Protonmail is a secure provider of encrypted email communications based in Switzerland. As we said before, Switzerland is a very good option for protecting your privacy.
This no longer applies to banking secrecy, but this small Alpine country is still a very good choice for personal data.
Protonmail offers several levels of service, for most people a free account will suffice (which currently includes 500MB of space and up to 150 messages per day).
Your account is protected with two passwords, i.e., your inbox is especially encrypted. All communication over Protonmail is automatically encrypted, so you don’t need manual end-to-end PGP encryption.
Protonmail’s success has not remained hidden from others. Protonmail had to resist one of the biggest DoS (denial-of-service) attacks in Swiss history.
DoS attacks are not uncommon in the online world, and paralyse websites by flooding them with data. It could be a competitor who wants to eliminate their competition, hacker collectives attempting to ask for ransom or governments wanting to control their citizens. You never really know.
The Icelandic service Unseen.is works in a similar way to Protonmail, but from a probably better jurisdiction.
With a free account you can chat with Unseen.is users and make encrypted calls.
Until recently you could also pay to use their premium services, but now it looks like they’ve changed their business model. We’ll see how they organise their services now.
Jottacloud is one of our favourite online storage providers. It’s a great option for storing your most important files.
Although they are stored without encryption, they do so in servers in one of the countries with probably the best data protection in the world: Norway.
As for the rest, it works the same as other cloud storage services, such as the well-known Dropbox. A free account has 5GB of space, so you should try it out.
It’s better to store confidential information in the cloud, where it is safe.
Threema and Wickr
Like Protonmail, Threema is a Swiss invention and also operates over Swiss servers, which is a good sign. Threema is a good option for instant messaging.
I probably don’t have to explain the security flaws that WhatsApp (which is, at least, encrypted), Facebook Messenger and others have.
Threema only costs a minimal fee, but it’s worth every penny, and offers good end-to-end encryption of the chat.
Aside from Threema, you can also use Wickr. However, this service is based in the US, so we have to be careful with data protection. If you don’t mind the US government being able to spy on you, Wickr is a good option.
Signal works in a similar way to Threema and Wickr, but also offers the possibility of making encrypted calls.
This app is our preferred option for making encrypted voice and even video calls and we often use it in our consultations.
Recommended by Edward Snowden and then called Redphone when it was used during the Arab Spring, use of this app, developed by Open Whisper Systems has rocketed.
Signal also lets you have encrypted chats. While there are doubtless many providers in the encrypted phone market with more sophisticated solutions, Signal is completely free, quick to install and easy to use, as well as being widely used.
Telegram is another great option for our day-to-day communication. This messaging and voice call app is quite widely used and lets you easily create group chats.
The VPN (Virtual Private Network) as extra security
Of course, if you’re looking for higher levels of security or you want to be able to camouflage the location you’re connecting to the network from, you should use a VPN (Virtual Private Networks) or avoid using the Internet altogether.
The former is easy and recommended, the latter quite unrealistic, so we’ll focus on the first option :-).
VPNs can be used on mobile phones, routers and PCs. They can even be integrated into your favourite browser.
One of the best VPNs around is ExpressVPN, with IP addresses in around 150 countries.
If you prefer a simpler one, which has fewer IP addresses and is generally less powerful, you can also choose TunnelBear (currently available in 22 countries). This gives you free use for up to 500MB of traffic.
But for those still unsure about VPNs we have some more information.
What is a VPN for?
- Increasing your privacy so that your internet provider does not know what websites you’ve visited, thus preventing it from being able to share this information with anyone.
- Avoiding censorship in certain countries. It lets you access information that is not available in certain countries by changing your IP address.
- It can allow you to save money in cases where traders charge more or less based on your location.
- It encrypts your communication so that nobody can access it or introduce malware onto your device. This is especially important when you connect to the Internet outside your house.
Avoiding the watch of your internet provider is a fundamental aspect. It is not hard for governments to pressure these companies and get them to hand over data which, in some cases, they are even obliged to record and save.
Censorship can happen from two sides. Sometimes the service providers are the ones who don’t want you to access content if you are not in the right location, and other times it’s the State you live in that does not want you to gain access to certain services or information.
Many people think that censorship and access restrictions only exist in countries like Russia, China, Iran… but the reality is that they also exist in the EU, the US and virtually any country in the world.
In terms of saving money on shopping, this does not have to do so much with the security of your communications, but is undoubtedly an added bonus to take into account.
Encrypting the data coming into and out of your device is undoubtedly the most important part. If you combine this with the above secure communciation services, whoever wants to spy on you will find it extremely difficult.
Mobile phones transmit your location at all times as soon as you connect to the aerials or satellites giving them coverage. Google obviously also knows where you are and what your most frequent journeys are if you consent to it, and each time you take photos with your phone information is added about the exact moment and place it was taken.
To an extent, these are features you can modify.
You can change the configuration of your camera (even though it´s a mobile phone) so that it stops collecting information on your location.
You can also change the configuration of Google Maps (it’s generally a good idea to take a look at your privacy settings for all Google services you use).
To avoid being located through your phone will be more complicated; you’ll have to put it on airplane mode, but, of course, if it’s always on airplane phone, why would you want your mobile?
Another more interesting option could be to get a card that is not in your name and that you can pay for in cash or with anonymous means of payment (crypto, maybe).
And, let’s not forget, social media sites can also collect information on your location. Take a look at your privacy settings and make sure they’re configured how you want them to be.
Passwords are another essential component in maintaining privacy. I assume you’re well aware that no matter how many VPNs and encrypted services you use, they’re useless if your password is very simple.
And what is a simple password? Well, for example, a series like ‘123456’, ‘11111’ or the year you or someone close to you was born. Click here to read about some of 2018’s least secure passwords.
If your password is one of the ones listed here, you’d better change it.
In principle, changing your passwords from time to time is not necessary, although it is an interesting idea to use different ones for different services.
If you don’t want to have to remember dozens of passwords, you can use one master password that gives you access to a file in which you keep all the other passwords.
What is a secure password?
A secure password should be long (at least 9 characters), include upper and lower case letters, different alphanumeric characters, but also punctuation marks and symbols (such as %, &, $, etc.).
If you can’t think of any, you can use websites like https://passwordsgenerator.net/. To be on the safe side you could slightly modify the password suggested by the app.
Viruses and malware
Viruses and malware are another great danger to your privacy. Despite what some people think, these programs are not just used by thieves, the mafia or hackers, but also usually by governments for spying (you’ve probably heard about the case of China).
To avoid being pirated, the first thing to do is update your mobile or PC apps (as well, of course, as plug-ins and so on if you have your own website).
The second thing to do is to be wary of what you install on your computer. Avoid installing anything if you are not sure how clean it is. Of course, an antivirus program is a very good way of analysing apps before installing them (or documents you receive by email before opening them).
It is also crucial to pay attention to the emails you open. The basic rule is, if it has an attachment or link and it’s from someone you don’t recognise, don’t open it. Unfortunately, this is not always enough, as sometimes hackers infect the computers of people you know and use their email address and diary to spread the virus or malware.
If your password is stolen or hacked, it would doubtless be a good idea to have two-factor authentification. If you have a key logger installed on your computer that reads all inputs, you’ve got a huge problem on your hands.
There is a wealth of antivirus and antimalware programs that you can download online and that will help you protect your devices.
As you can see, your data belongs to you, but you have to look after it. This does not have to be difficult, but you should at least have read this article and started to apply some of what you’ve learnt.
As we said earlier, this list is not exhaustive, but it is a good place to start for preventing other people from snooping around your life when you’re online.
We hope this article has given you a small overview of how you can improve your privacy and the services that can make your daily life more secure and encrypted, making it harder for governments, pirates and corporations to keep an eye on you.
You can get all the services we’ve set out here up and running in under an hour. In terms of costs, they’re mostly minimal or zero.
So now you have no excuses, get back your privacy in your communications and your life in general.
Because it’s your life!