Here at VPN Creative we value online privacy and Internet security. Based on our vast experience we have put together this complete guide to cover all potential risks and leaks of personal information in your digital life. Whether you’re using a web browser, a smart phone, cloud storage or Instant Messages, as a default, your personal information is at risk for leaking to hackers, advertisers, or government surveillance. If you do nothing, all your interactions with computers, online service, mobile devices will be tracked, snooped upon, and potentially hacked.
We have divided the guide into eight categories, and for each category we list the common risks and solutions to stay safe and secure online. We have collected a list of the best privacy-friendly apps and services. Together, these services will help you avoid personal information being leaked or hacked, unwanted targeted advertisements, as well as spying and surveillance.
At the end of the day we recommend to consider as many security improvements as possible. But you also need to find a balance between security and convenience.
- Search Engine
- Web Browser
- Internet Service Provider (ISP)
- Cloud Storage
- Instant Messaging
- Computer & Operating System
- Mobile Device
Key risk: Search engines will record your web browsing history
Search engines have become a huge part of our lives. Google, Yahoo, and Bing are the top 3 names in the industry that provide the most relevant search results, which has enabled them to capture a majority share of the search engine market. The downside to such dominance is that they constantly track their users’ search data as well as web browsing history, in order to display advertisements and other promotional materials for their own profits. Search engines are also known to glean personal information from unsuspecting users that includes, but not limited to, name, location, credit card information, phone numbers, and more.
The solution: Use a search engine that doesn’t track you or anonymize yourself
It is impossible to replace the use of search engines, especially if you want to get hold of the best resources available online. You can either consider using lesser known, but privacy oriented, search engines such as DuckDuckGo, or use masking tools such as Disconnect Search or StartPage that will allow you to browse through Google anonymously. You can also use other tools such as Tor, VPN, or other ad-blocking software to prevent search engines from tracking your personal web browsing data.
Key risk: Web browsers exposes you to ad tracking and malicious programs
Google Chrome has become the most preferred web browser in recent times, which puts a fair amount of users at risk of data theft and reduced privacy. Web browsers such as Google Chrome and Internet Explorer are inherently insecure against privacy threats. They don’t provide any level of security against information phishing or tracking information through third-party cookies. It is easy for websites and ISPs to install and run tracking scripts, cookies, and other malicious programs that can steal confidential information. Click-jacking and pop-up/under advertising are also major threats that can inadvertently cause you to install harmful programs into your browser and hard disk.
The solution: Use browser add-ons to prevent tracking and 3rd-party cookies
Replace your web browser with other alternatives such as Firefox, which provides better privacy options, especially with the privacy mode turned on. You should also consider using browser add-ons available for Firefox as well as Chrome such as uBlock Origin, HTTPS Everywhere, No Script, as well as other ad-blocking tools that will prevent websites or trackers from installing browsing cookies on your browser. Using these tools will immensely help you to keep your browsing behavior private, and can also help in keeping your personal information safe from prying eyes.
Key risk: Your emails are scanned for keywords, contexts
How would you respond when a colleague or a friend takes a peek over your shoulder while you compose a private email? If this action infuriates you beyond words, then you should seriously consider the implications of a lack of privacy and confidentiality from free email service providers. Mainstream email services providers such as Gmail, Yahoo Mail, and MS outlook automatically scans your entire mailbox, including the ones you compose, so as to better understand your preferences. They claim they do so automatically to serve better advertisements. It is difficult to expect any kind of privacy or security if you are using any of these email service providers for all personal as well as professional email correspondence. Major Government surveillance agencies also scan personal emails in their fight against terrorism, but also use it to snoop on their citizen’s online activities and personal communications.
The solution: Use alternate email providers or email cloaking technologies
You should replace your existing email address with other third-party email service providers such as Kolab Now and FastMail. These service providers offer a private and anonymous email platform for a small nominal annual fees, but they are guaranteed to provide enhanced security and confidentiality for all of your email communications through state-of-the-art encryption.
You can also use email encryption technologies for your existing email accounts such as Blur, which not only masks your email address, but also protects your credit card information and other sensitive personal data. Tutanota is another email encryption service that encrypts and decrypts the email at the sender’s and receiver’s ends.
A more modern and open-sourced version of PGP, known as Gnu Privacy Guard (GPG), is as a free email encryption alternative that will make it difficult for surveillance agencies to crack and read emails. GPG works with all major operating systems and existing email service providers.
Internet Service Provider (ISP)
Key risk: Government surveillance, web tracking, and bandwidth throttling
We are familiar with how ISPs around the world joined hands with Governments and their surveillance programs to spy on their users without their consent. ISPs constantly track your web browsing behavior, and can also display advertising and promotional banners over existing content, thereby ruining your web browsing experience. ISPs can also limit your bandwidth for certain types of traffic, such as bit torrent traffic and online media streaming, which inhibits total control over your internet connectivity.
The solution: Use a VPN to bypass ISP filters
The best way to counter your ISP’s attempt to intrude into your privacy is to invest in a quality Virtual Private Network (VPN) that will allow you to encrypt your entire web traffic through secure servers and protocols. Access to a VPN service provider will also help you to unblock geo-blocked content and prevent your ISP from limiting the amount of content that you can access.
Key risk: Security & privacy of data stored on the cloud
We are so much dependent on cloud storage that it offers us great flexibility and convenience while storing files for instant access. Google Drive and Dropbox offers great features, but are open-ended, and do not encrypt any files stored on their servers. This provides easy access to hackers and even your colleagues who share their drive with you.
The solution: Choose a secure cloud storage platform
If you really want to store files on a cloud storage, you should consider opting for a premium storage service such as Seafile, Tonido, or ownCloud. These cloud storage service providers encrypt the files from your computer before storing them on their server, and the decryption can only be performed by the owner of the file. This provides multiple levels of security, and you can be guaranteed about the privacy of your files.
Key risk: No privacy of messages
Instant messaging has become an integral part of our lives, and we rarely pay attention to the security aspect of using the various instant messaging platforms such as Skype, Facebook Messenger, and WhatsApp. Free instant messaging platforms are huge privacy risks, especially since we have a tendency to share numerous personal data, media, and other information without thinking about it. These free instant messaging apps always gather personal data to gain information about a person to display ads according to their chat history.
The solution: Use secure instant messaging channels
It is pretty difficult to encrypt chat messages on your existing instant messaging apps, which requires you to switch your instant messaging apps to other secure alternatives. Mobile users on Android or iOS can switch to free apps such as ChatSecure (Signal for iOS) or Wickr to ensure that they can have fully secure conversations without every worrying about privacy. Wickr is especially useful as it allows you to set an option for self-destructing your messages once the recipient has read them.
Computer & Operating System
Key risk: Low levels of privacy, security, & encryption
Branded computers and proprietary operating systems are integrally connected to their respective companies. Most modern operating systems communicate with their parent servers on a period basis, and often transmit sensitive personal information on the pretext of improving user experience. While operating systems come equipped with several security and encryption tools, 100% privacy is not guaranteed among mainstream operating systems. A lack of proper encryption can also pose as a serious security threat in the event of your computer getting into the wrong hands by way of misplacing your computer or computer theft.
The solution: Install secure operating systems such as Linux & encrypt your hard disk
Consider switching your operating system to more advanced and secure platforms. However, you can also choose Linux, as it provides great security and privacy without the added complexities. It can also serve as a great free replacement for Windows or OS X platforms. As far as disk encryption goes, Linux and OS X operating systems have built-in functionalities that allows you to encrypt your disk in the unlikely event of you losing your computer.
You can also use a variation of the Linux operating system by installing Elementary OS, which provides a similar user experience to OS X. You can also buy a desktop or laptop with pre-installed Linux operating system, which are readily available at ThinkPenguin.
Key risk: Highly insecure & open-ended operating systems
Android is an open-source software that can be tweaked by manufacturers for their own benefits. iOS may be considered as a safer and more secure option, but it is still connected to the parent server. The same can be said for Windows devices as well. Almost all mobile devices have privacy loopholes that can lead to your sensitive data being broadcast to people who are looking for it.
The solution: Jailbreak your phone to install a secure OS, or use a Blackphone
You should jailbreak your mobile operating system and install a replica operating system such as Replicant or CyanogenMod, which will give you the same functionalities as your regular phone, but adds more security and privacy. Alternatively, you can also buy a Blackphone from Silent Circle that has been designed as a secure and encrypted phone from the ground up. Blackphone allows you to make encrypted phone calls, send secure messages, and incorporate several security features that allows you to enjoy complete peace of mind.
A few additional security recommendations
Use A VPN for all web browsing
For the most secure and private web browsing experience, consider signing up for a good quality VPN service from VPN providers that value the security and anonymity of their users. This will not only help you to stay safe from any form of surveillance or internet monitoring, but can also help you to bypass internet censorship for unrestricted web access. A VPN is also a must have, especially if you connect your computer through an open and public network.
Use a password manager
It is difficult to create and memorize different passwords for individual websites or platforms, which forces us into using a single password for multiple platforms. This makes it easy for hackers to access your entire accounts by just hacking through any one of your accounts.
Instead of using a single password for all of your accounts, consider using a password manager to create different passwords for your multiple accounts. You can use any of the top-quality free password managers such as Password Safe, or you can also sign up for a premium password manager such as LastPass.
Never leave your devices unattended
If you share your workspace with your colleagues, or if you leave your devices unattended for even a minute, you should always password protect your device and make sure to encrypt it, wherever possible. This will help you to avoid data theft or intrusions into privacy from prying eyes. Set your phone or computer to turn itself off after a few minutes of inactivity, as this will go a long way into protecting your personal and sensitive information.
Encrypt your devices & your network
Always encrypt your devices to ensure that your data cannot be retrieved in the inadvertent event of losing your electronic devices. It is common for us to lose our mobiles or misplace our laptops, but we should always be concerned about the security of our personal data, the loss of which can do more harm than good. You should also encrypt your network, and if you are using your device on a public network or a shared network, use a VPN to totally encrypt your internet traffic and stay safe from any form of data monitoring.
Be proactive in securing your privacy
Never give out sensitive information and other personal details in open forums such as social networking sites and instant messaging platforms. Sometimes, a simple question about your mother’s maiden name can provide hackers an opportunity to retrieve your password, especially if you have ticked this option in your password recovery system.
Always stay away from websites and services that have malicious intent. Never click on anything that does not appear right, and refrain from providing your name, email address, phone numbers, banking details, credit card data, or any other personal information on any websites. If you inadvertently click on any advertisements, browser add-ons, or programs, remove them immediately from your device and install a good anti-malware as well as anti-virus program to ensure that your computer or mobile device is completely safe and secure. Ultimately, you are required to be proactive in your efforts to ensure your own safety and security in the modern world of surveillance, data theft, privacy incursion, and corporate agenda.