September 01, 2018

The Digital Toolkit

Tools for protecting your digital privacy.

Tom Mighell

Most of us who use the internet likely long ago came to terms with the level of privacy we are willing to accept to get things accomplished in our work or personal life. That said, the internet—or the people who exploit it—keeps coming up with new and inventive ways to take our personal information, often without our knowledge. We all learned that in a rude way earlier this year when Facebook revealed that a third party had captured the personal information of more than 80 million users, many of whom had not even given permission to give away that information. I’m one of those people—a nifty little tool on Facebook told me that although I didn’t log in to the This Is Your Digital Life tool used by Cambridge Analytica, one of my Facebook friends did. As a result Cambridge Analytica now has my public profile, page likes, birthday and current city.

In the scheme of things, I’m not that worried. I’m of the opinion that giving up a little privacy can get you a lot of information on the internet, and services that have information about you can provide some pretty powerful functions these days—just take a look at the amazing things Google can do if it knows enough about you. But not all of you feel the same, and even I take steps to protect a lot of my personal information, the stuff I don’t want anyone to know. So in this entry of The Digital Toolkit, I thought I would share some options for protecting yourself online that you might find useful, whether you are using social media, sending communications or just surfing the web.

Protecting Yourself from Facebook

While we’re talking about Facebook, let’s look at a few ways you can limit the social network’s intrusion into your life and still get some enjoyment out of using it. First, if you didn’t do this back in April, download a copy of your Facebook data to see the information it is keeping on you—which is a lot. You’ll get a copy of every photo or video you’ve ever uploaded, all of your Facebook friends, ads you’ve clicked, messages you’ve sent and received, and (for some people) a complete history of anyone you ever called on your phone. Facebook provides instructions on how to limit and remove this information; take advantage of this, if you find Facebook has more information than makes you comfortable.

You’ll also want to head over to the Privacy area in Facebook and take a look at all of the apps you’ve granted access. This could also be a lot—Facebook is a great tool for logging in to apps and sites all over the internet, and it keeps a record of all of them. This is how Cambridge Analytica and similar apps get their data—you give them permission. Go through all the apps and revoke permission for the ones you don’t need or recognize. If you’re also a Twitter user, this is a good time to head over there, check out your app permissions and do a little cleanup.

One last Facebook tip—stop Facebook from following you around the internet. Have you ever gone shopping on a website for a pair of pants, and the next day you’re scrolling through Facebook and there’s an ad for the exact pair of pants? That’s Facebook for you. It tracks you around the internet and feeds you ads based on your shopping or browsing history. But you can stop this too. Visit YourAdChoices.com, and you can control the information that Facebook and other sites receive about your browsing history.

Handling Ads and Trackers

Which brings up our next topic: protecting yourself from advertising or other web trackers. Internet advertising is so insidious these days, you can probably find five or six advertising trackers on every single commercial web page you visit. If you see an ad on a web page, chances are it’s broadcasting a tracker at you, collecting your information. There are a number of ad blockers available for browsers. My favorite is an old standby, AdBlock. It’s a Google Chrome browser extension—just install it, and it immediately goes to work, removing all of the advertising from the web pages you visit. It’s like the ads were never there. The browsing experience is so nice you’ll wonder how you ever got along without it. You can customize AdBlock to allow advertising on certain sites and create custom filters.

Another great privacy extension is Privacy Badger, which was developed by the Electronic Frontier Foundation. It “tracks the trackers,” discovering those sources that track your browser across different websites and shutting them down so they can no longer track you. It’s designed to automatically analyze and block any tracker or ad that violates the principle of user consent, and it does a really good job.

Unfortunately, content providers are finding a way around these tools. Websites are now able to detect when you are using an ad blocker and will essentially block your access to the site’s content or prevent some content from working (like videos, for example) until you turn it off. Many of these sites have a reasonable argument for doing this; advertising is often their primary source of revenue, and ad blockers do a very good job of choking off that stream of income. It all comes down to whether your desire to view a site’s content is greater than your need to block the advertising. The good news is, you can just add a website to your ad blocker’s filter without having to entirely shut down the extension.

As you may already know, Google is one of the biggest “trackers” on the internet; it keeps track of your search history as well as a whole lot of other things. If you prefer that your web browsing be more private, consider using DuckDuckGo. Its new browser extension (for Chrome, Firefox and Safari) and app (iOS and Android) will show you a privacy grade rating for every site you visit, block hidden web trackers, force a connection to an encrypted version of a website and allow you to search the web without your search history being tracked.

My Final Thought

As I am writing this column, the news is breaking that the technology underlying email encryption may be compromised, which means we’ll have to find new ways of securing our confidential communications. In the meantime check out the Signal app—it’s not email, but it has been shown to provide extremely strong protections for confidential messaging and phone conversations. And it doesn’t hurt that it’s free too.

So what do you think? Do you already use some of these apps to protect your privacy, or are you thinking about using them? Or maybe you think you’re already doing a pretty good job on your own of protecting your online privacy. Let’s continue the conversation online. Send me a tweet @TomMighell or an email at tmighell+dt@gmail.com. I’ll compile all your comments and post them on the Law Technology Today blog (lawtechnologytoday.org).

Tom Mighell

Vice President, Delivery Services at Contoural

Tom Mighell has served as chair of both the ABA Law Practice Division and ABA TECHSHOW. tmighell@gmail.com

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