May 11, 2020
In past issues of Be Ready! I have written about the US Government’s and the NSA’s overreaching collection of data from the web and telecommunication traffic. They basically collect everything. Unfortunately this situation has simply gotten worse now with private software companies such as Microsoft and Google venturing down the same path. With this becoming the new norm, how can we protect ourselves, our information and most importantly our privacy online?
While it’s growing increasingly more difficult to maintain your digital privacy, there are still ways to accomplish it. Both Microsoft and Google claim they now have better data protection for their customers and consumers from government’s reach. However, both have now entered the fray themselves, and are heavily collecting data for their own purposes. Their tools of choice are the free services, free operating systems and software upgrades. Remember, in reality nothing is really free. These “free” services are for learning and monitoring your shopping habits, what shows and videos you like to watch, who your friends and family are, what kind of food you like, where your daily commute takes you and much more. The collected information is then stored in gargantuan on-line databases for monetization purposes.
For Microsoft, their tool of choice is the Windows 10 operating system. This has been aggressively pushed as a free upgrade for exiting users of the Windows 7 and 8 operating systems. What sets the newer version 10 apart is its various telemetry functions deeply embedded into the core source code of the operating system. In short, Windows 10 “phones home” to Microsoft‘s datacenter with data about the user, who is unable to completely disable this telemetry function. Furthermore, Microsoft has also pushed some of these telemetry functions into existing copies of Windows 7 and 8 through “security updates”, although the actual telemetry functionality is limited and can be easily disabled. With the end of support for Windows 7 approaching in January 2020 and Windows 8 in 2023, users of these Windows versions are being forced to either upgrade to Windows 10 or looking for an alternative computer operating system.
Despite the growing complaints from end-users, Microsoft claims they cannot remove the telemetry from their new software since it’s built into the core of it. My experience dealing with the business version of Windows 10 in a corporate setting is that some of the telemetry entries are disabled but not all of them. What does this mean? Simply that even on the business side, Microsoft will always have a backdoor to computers running Windows 10. This led to foreign governments banning the use of Microsoft products due to security concerns. Magically, Microsoft began offering custom tailored Windows operating systems for governments, like China and Iran, with all telemetry disabled. So, telemetry can be switched off after all, but Microsoft will not let that happen in the non-government versions of their software. Think about that.
Is Apple any better? Well, Apple is somewhat marginally better than either Microsoft or Google. Apple has control of their hardware and software, and they are extremely profitable, so they haven’t resorted to using the same anti-consumer tactics that both Microsoft and Google are now using. It’s not that Apple is really better; they are just smarter in handling the situation and their customers are willing to pay a premium for Apple services and operating systems.
Now while Google was once at the forefront of protecting users’ data they have degraded to become one of the worst offenders. The two main factors are in the past few years Google became the biggest advertisement provider on the web with its AdSense service, also know as Google Ad, and Google’s Android mobile operating system is now running on the majority of all smartphones and mobile devices around the world. While Android remains completely free to use, it became a huge data collecting tool that Google uses to feed its own Ad service. Plus, Google has made some inward progress in the personal computer space with their Chrome book line. These are cheap laptops which run on a free Google operating system. Also, their Chrome web browser is already the most popular of all computer web browsers. In short, harvesting user’s data for running ads is the main focus now for Google with every piece of hardware and software tailored in aiding that purpose.
To defend against Google’s privacy incursions, I would recommend replacing the Google Chrome web browser with the privacy focused Brave web browser (https://brave.com/). This is available for all platforms, including smartphones and tablets running on Google’s Android mobile operating system. The Brave browser comes with ad-blocker built-in and it uses the same core software-rendering engine as Google Chrome so compatibility will not be an issue. For the replacement of Google search, I like to use the privacy focused DuckDuckGo search engine (https://duckduckgo.com/) as my default choice. It’s available as an app also for Android. Another highly regarded privacy search engine option is StartPage (https://www.startpage.com/).
As for the privacy issue with Microsoft and their operating system for desktop and laptop computers, there are unfortunately few options available to you. You can: stay with the current version of Windows, upgrade to Windows 10, or change over to another operating system such as Linux. While the update support from Microsoft for Windows 7 will end soon, it should remain fairly secure for a while as long as you are not doing anything risky with it. Windows 8 is good till 2023. As time goes by, you will have to upgrade to the latest variant of Windows eventually, or leave Windows behind for good.
If you are already running Windows 10, you can install aftermarket utilities add-ons which can help you in disabling most of the telemetry functions in Windows. Free privacy utilities with names like Disable Win Track, ShuUp10, DoNotSpy 10, Destroy Windows 10 Spying and W10Privacy are the popular choices.
The last option is to try out one of the versions of Linux with full feature desktop interface. This is the path I am taking as I refuse to install Microsoft Windows 10 with its built-in telemetry. The Linux operating system has come a long way since its early days of being an alternative OS which catered to tech savvy computer users. Today’s Linux desktop distros (distribution) are easy to install and their graphical interface desktop make them almost as easy to use as the Windows desktop interface. My consumer friendly Linux distros recommendations are Linux Mint with the Cinnamon desktop interface (https://linuxmint.com/). It will take no time for a Windows user to get use to it, and the Elementary OS Linux (https://elementary.io/), its Juno desktop interface is very similar that of Apple’s Mac OSX’s desktop. There’s also the privacy focused PureOS (https://pureos.net/) with the plain Gnome. It’s more basic than I would like but its fast and the company that developed it, Purism, is known for making specialized hardware and software that emphasizes user privacy.
PureOS comes with the DuckDuckGo secure search engine and PureBrowser, their modified version of Mozilla Firefox which features additional securing plug-ins to enhanced user security. The built-in app store features only apps that are approved for meeting the company’s high standard in regards to user security and privacy. i
Keeping email secure from the mail provider nowadays can be a challenge. The most popular web mail provider, Google’s Gmail, is actually very good at security, blocking spam and malicious attachments. However, Gmail is also part of Google’s data collection tool kit which is known to scan emails to pull data for ads. I would recommend replacing Gmail with a privacy focused paid email service like ProtonMail or Tutanota. If you have to stay with Gmail for convenience, I would recommend the paid enterprise version of Gmail known not to collect data. All of them cost around $5 a month.
VPN or virtual private network is a service that helps mask the data transmissions from your Internet provider to you. It works by encrypting all the data transmissions in an app client on your computer or mobile device, and then it sends it to the VPN server which acts as your Internet access portal. It’s like a middleman with you data that keeps your local Internet service provider or the government from finding out what you are doing online. Just keep in mind that a good VPN service is not free, but the price for the service is typically under $10 a month. Also make sure that the VPN provider is outside of the “5 Eyes”, “9 Eyes” or “14 Eyes” jurisdictions. All of those are terms referring to global surveillance by governments of Australia, Canada, New Zealand, UK and the United States (the 5 Eyes), plus Denmark, France, Netherlands, Norway (the 9 Eyes), and with the addition of Germany, Belgium, Italy, Sweden and Spain (the 14 Eyes).
I would also recommend turning off any kind of virtual voice assistant such as Siri from Apple, Contana in Microsoft Windows 10, Alexa from Amazon and OK Google from Google. All of them listen to you all the time and have been known to keep time-coded recordings in their database, as well as collecting general stats about you and your family. Isn’t that nice?
Ultimately, the digital privacy of your data is in your hands. Just be smart about it and use some of the tips and security apps in this article with your computer, smart phone and mobile devices. While it’s in our good nature to be trustful, in the digital domain trust no one, at least not without in-depth verifications.