Open Source Privacy

I’ve blogged about OpenSource software and the Linux operating system before – I’ve even convinced friends and family members to join me. CentOS and Debian are my distros (distributions) of choice, but for most of them, moving over from the Windows world; simpler is better. To resolve that, I’ve set them up mainly with Ubuntu (shudder) and Mint. My own children use Xubuntu. I get asked a lot –

How do you get anything done since (insert overpriced product here) doesn’t run on Linux?

Well, I’ve blogged about that too, HERE. But in the wake of US programs for spying on the American public, such as PRISM, merely using OpenSource and expecting the lack of anything Microsoft to protect you isn’t enough. I’ve touched on configuring TOR, using Off the Record plugins for Pidgeon and other similar privacy enhancements HERE.

But I’d like to take a moment to post on a basic level for beginners, about the bare essentials in protecting their privacy. Simple changes that they can make without having to do any real major configuration to their system.

For this, you need to be a bit more clever by taking certain steps such as changing your search engine, what browser you use, how you email and how you generally make use of any web based products. Read more about giving the NSA the finger HERE, and opting out of global data surveillance HERE.

The “Opting out of Global Data Surveillance” link should pretty much cover what you need, and for Linux users like myself, this specific LINK in the opt-out information is useful. But at the basic level, even if you don’t feel a need to install, configure and make use of TOR, at the minimal, use Firefox and make either https://duckduckgo.com or https://www.startpage.com your go-to for your searches each time you search. StartPage has the obvious advantage as it provides Google search results (let’s face it, we call searching “Googling” for a reason) but strips out your personal information so that Google never receives your IP or has a chance to laden your machine with cookies. That’s not to say that DuckDuckGo isn’t useful, but you will see a noteworthy difference in the quality of search results.

For your email, while it does not have anywhere near the bells and whistles of Google/Gmail, I highly recommend Autistici-Inventati. Their service does offer all the following, free, and naturally they accept donations to keep these services available. Find them HERE. The web mail is plain and uses Roundcube, but it’s free, private and secure. Couple it with Thunderbird or Earlybird (HERE‘s how you secure them), and it’s a win! Also, you can use K-9 on your Android phone for the secure email feature.

There exist other email alternatives, of course, aside from even those mentioned in the opt-out link. A friend of mine on Mastodon (more on this in a bit) recommends ProtonMail. I haven’t tried it to date, and as such, cannot comment on it positively or negatively. I respect his opinion and assume that if he recommends it, it’s worthy of said recommendation. You can read about his move to Linux HERE. You can also read his write-up on online privacy (in which he touches on ProtonMail) HERE.

Anyway, these are the surface level important bits gleaned from the opt-out information. You can read more details and customize more of your desktop environment with apps and web services as you wish based on their guide. These presented here are the absolute BASICS for preserving a shred of privacy in an ever increasingly watched, regulated and data mined digital world.

The last subject I’d like to touch on, is… well… a touchy one. Social networking. I know… you’re old and stuck in your ways. Facebook is familiar and easy. Twitter is comfortable and doesn’t need any configuration. Well – that may be true, but they’re also undoing everything that we are trying to do in the entire preceding part of this blog post. Facebook caches every single search. Whether for people or for products. Every page you like. Every status you like. Each news story that you read from their web app. Twitter does the same. Everything that you do on either site is monitored, collected, and placed into a nice little package that allows them to serve all those ads that you see all over in the side bars, and between posts. Your email… your birthday… all your relationships. This data is all theirs. You gave it to them. And they use it.

There exist two main alternatives for Social Networking that I highly recommend. The first is older (if you don’t count OpenSource predecessors) and is called Diaspora. It’s pretty much got all the functionality of Facebook, but without the clutter, without the ads, and without fear of all your data being mined and sold to any and all bidders. They have a large pool of “pods” to choose from, and you can join any of them. They allow you to follow people from other “pods”, but they aren’t ruled by a centralized, authoritarian data miner. I know, it’s a pain getting your family and friends to switch, but persistence does pay off! The second is Mastodon. It’s essentially a fuller featured Twitter, which allows more character input as well. Like Diaspora, it’s broken into “instances” and not all housed in a central server somewhere. You can join any instance that you like, and like Diaspora, follow people from other Instances. Again, no centralized authoritarian data miner granting you the right to use a website in exchange for all your digital data. Both Diaspora and Mastodon have mobile apps that you can use. Both are well worth a try, and both will help you protect / control your own data. That isn’t to say that either is foolproof, but both by far outweigh the negative aspects of Facebook and Twitter.