Internet Privacy: Do You Google?

This article is going to be seen as “political” by some, and as such will be controversial. So, if you, dear reader, do not like reading “political” articles, move on along, there is nothing to see here. But if you are a person who can peer past the veil of “politics” to the heart of a matter, you may want to keep reading.

First off, I am a USA National with a long form, hard copy birth certificate to prove it if needed. I believe strongly in personal freedom, personal privacy, personal responsibility, and small, limited government. Very much like the founders of my country (1,2,3). I have been dismayed at the growth of government in my country and the resulting erosion of personal freedom and personal privacy for a long time now. I could not care less which “political party” is in power as long as they share the ideals of the founders of the USA, and thus my ideals.

Sadly, or tragically, or disgustingly, or perhaps happily, depending on one’s perspective, neither of the two major parties here share the ideals of the founders of this nation. They have proven so over and over by continuing to grow the power and reach of government after each election cycle is completed. The slide toward despotism and tyranny in a country always begins with the growth of government and the erosion of personal freedom. An honest look at history will prove that.

What does this have to do with Internet privacy and Google? If you use Google for anything, the US government, and likely other governments, can potentially see what you are doing. Google has servers all over the world and keeps records of your activity. Google can therefore be coerced to give those records to a government agency. Further, Google does not encrypt your connection by default with HTTPS, so snooper programs used by government agencies, such as the US NSA, can watch what you do without need to go to Google. This does not just affect Google users, it also affects users of Yahoo!, Bing and any other on-line service that keeps records of activity and/or does not encrypt connections by default.

The recent revelations that the US government has massive data gathering programs to obtain data on Internet and phone users is no surprise to those of us who suspected this all along. But it has been a big, unpleasant surprise to many folk who do not usually think about these issues. Inevitably we have seen the tired argument raised, “I don’t care! I have nothing to hide! Only people who want to hide criminal activity would be concerned about this!” Yes, the exclamation points must be used. From a freedom and privacy perspective this argument is egregiously incorrect. Allow me to quote a wise man, “They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.” – Benjamin Franklin 1775.

Some others have addressed this argument as well:

Why Privacy Matters Even if You Have ‘Nothing to Hide’
By Daniel J. Solove
The Chronicle Review – May 15, 2011

Plenty to Hide
By Jay Stanley
lifehacker – June 14, 2012

Why ‘I Have Nothing to Hide’ Is the Wrong Way to Think About Surveillance
By Moxie Marlinspike – June 13, 2013

If you are concerned about your privacy on-line what can you do about protecting your privacy from snooping? Here are some means to assist you with that.

Use HTTPS for as much of your browsing on-line as possible. This encrypts the traffic between you and the host to which your browser is connecting. That makes real-time monitoring of the data on your connection impossible by any currently known means of monitoring network data.

Limit your searches to search engines that do not track you and do not store information about your searches. Two of these are run by the same group. and both protect your privacy by first using HTTPS encrypted connections and second by not storing any information about your searches. By using encryption you are protected from in-line scanning of your searches. By not having information stored about your searches you are protected from government coercion of your search provider to reveal your search data. Even better for USA users, the servers for these services are in The Netherlands. This means it would require the US government to rely on treaties and negotiations with the host country before it could even approach the owners of the servers.

Caveat: occasionally these search engines return a message about being overloaded and request you wait for a few minutes and try again. While this may be annoying and frustrating, it surely is a small price to pay for your privacy.

When practical, use a proxy to view web sites. Both of the search engines mentioned above provide a relatively secure proxy feature. A proxy sends its own IP address to a web host and acts as a bridge between your browser and the host system. This helps mitigate your exposure when using sites for which you have searched. Certain features of content rich web sites will not work through a proxy and require a direct connection. So, you have to decide whether or not to continue using such sites. For example, if your browser uses Java for connection to any content, no amount of proxy routing can hide you at that point.

What about e-mail privacy? Once again, avoid the major players like Google, Yahoo!, Microsoft, et al. It may be worth a few dollars to secure your e-mail by using a paid, privacy e-mail service located in a country other than your own. This web search may offer you some ideas: secure private e-mail.

Ultimately we all need to decide what the term “privacy” entails and how much privacy means to us. For me, my “stuff” is mine and no one has a right to know about my “stuff” unless I choose to share it. If this means I have a little less “safety” from terrorists, so be it. I am not willing to compromise my freedoms for some amorphous amount of perceived safety.