In the course of writing her book, Dragnet Nation, Julia Angwin tried various strategies to help protect her privacy. Here, she shares some tips for readers, starting with how to build better passwords.
Passwords are the first line of defense between your private data and an attacker – whether it is a criminal hacker or a spy agency.
But most of the conventional wisdom about building passwords is terrible. People are often told they should change their passwords every three months; that their passwords should be made strong with multiple symbols and letters; and the passwords should not be written down anywhere.
Computer scientist Ross Anderson has summed up this terrible advice as “Choose a password you can’t remember, and don’t write it down.” Faced with that impossible task, most people use passwords that are easy to remember – the most popular password is still 123456 – and use it for every single account.
It’s actually better advice to choose a more secure password and write it down somewhere in a safe place. After all, it’s much less likely that someone will break into your house and steal your master password list than it is that someone will hack into your account from afar through a weak password.
However, even if you write down your passwords, you still face the difficult task of dreaming up the dozens of passwords that seem to be required for modern life. At first, I tried to make up my own passwords, but after I stumbled on this password-strength estimator, I realized that many of my homegrown passwords were still easy to crack. So, after much searching for a perfect password strategy, I came up with a two-tiered solution for building strong passwords:
• I used 1Password, a password management software that generates and store passwords, for less important accounts – such as my frequent flier and online shopping accounts. Like its competitors, KeePass, 1Password generates strong passwords from strings of letters, numbers and symbols and stores them on my machine in an encrypted file.
• I used a simple, low-tech passphrase-generating system called Diceware, for more important passwords – such as my e-mail and online bank accounts. It works like this: roll a six-sided die five times, then take the numbers you roll and match them up to the Diceware word list, which contains 7,776 short words. Repeat this five times and you will end up with a five-word passphrase that is hard for attackers to crack, but easy to remember.
HOW TO SAFELY BROWSE THE WEB
One of the easiest and simplest things you can do to protect your privacy is to be a smarter Web browser.
This is surprisingly difficult because most popular Web browsing software is set up to allow users to be tracked by default. The reason is simple economics – you don’t pay for Web browsing software, so the companies that make it have to find other ways to make money.
The most egregious example of this conflict came in 2008 when Microsoft’s advertising executives helped quash a plan by the engineers to build better privacy protections into the Internet Explorer 8 Web browser. Microsoft has since added additional protections – but they are not turned on by default. The situation is no better at Google, whose Chrome Web browser has a “buried and discouraged” the Do Not Track button, and is pioneering the use of new tracking technology that cannot be blocked. And it’s worth noting that the other big Web browser maker, Mozilla Corp., receives 85 percent of its revenues from its agreement to make Google the default search engine on Firefox.
Even worse, many of the tools that Web browsers offer to protect privacy are not effective. Tracking companies have refused to honor the Do Not Track button. And Google Chrome’s Incognito mode and Internet Explorer’s InPrivate Browsing mode won’t protect you from being tracked. Those settings simply prevent other people who use your Web browser after you to see where you’ve been online.
And so, in order to prevent the most common types of tracking, I ended up loading up my Web browser – Mozilla’s Firefox – with a bunch of extra software. It sounds like a lot of work, but most of this software can be installed in a few minutes. Here’s what I used:
• I installed HTTPS Everywhere, created by the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the Tor Project. This tool forces your Web browser to use encrypted Internet connections to any website that will allow it. This prevents hackers – and the National Security Agency – from eavesdropping on your Internet connections.
• I installed Disconnect, a program created by former Google engineer Brian Kennish, which blocks advertisers and social networks, such as Facebook and Twitter, from tracking which websites you visit.
• I set my default search engine to be DuckDuckGo, a search engine that doesn’t store any of the information that is automatically transmitted by your computer — the IP address and other digital footprints — so DuckDuckGo has no way to link your search queries to you. That means DuckDuckGo won’t auto-complete your search queries based on your previous searches or based on your physical location, as Google does. So you’ll have to be a little smarter about your searches, and remember to bookmark the pages that you visit often, to save time.
After browsing with my ungainly setup for nearly a year, I found a Web browser that had all the features I wanted built in — called WhiteHat Aviator. It has built-in HTTPS Everywhere, it doesn’t retain or sell your online activity, and it uses Disconnect to block trackers from advertisers and social media companies. Its default search engine is DuckDuckGo.
It’s built by a computer security firm called WhiteHat Security, but it hasn’t been audited by any computer security experts yet, as far as I can tell. So use it at your own risk (and currently you can only use it on the Mac OSX operating system). But I’ve been using it for a few months, and after some bugginess in the beginning, I’ve started to enjoy the unusual feeling of having privacy as a default setting.
Another option that Angwin suggests for protecting your privacy online includes opting out from data brokers — which she says is no easy task.