It’s been a few weeks since the Investigatory Powers Bill (aka the Snoopers Charter) passed into solid law with barely even a whimper, let alone a bang.
Since Edward Snowden revealed the extent of international government spying on the part of the NSA in the US and GCHQ in the UK three years ago, people have – on the whole – resigned themselves to a life in which their movements are being watched.
In all honesty, very few of us would be willing or even able to sacrifice our digital lives for the sake of complete privacy.
But if the thought of Theresa May and Amber Rudd having access to your browsing history, being able to read your private messages and emails, and tracking your whereabouts generally seems a bit… well, unsettling, then you may want to take some basic precautions to protect yourself and your civil liberties.
These steps, as well as keeping you generally (although not 100%) off the Home Office’s radar, will also help you keep your information out of the hands of cybercriminals, major corporations who profit off trading your data, and any spying partners or exes.
First thing’s first – get a plaster
Or some boxing tape. Then, stick it over your webcam.
One of the more unsettling, creepy things revealed by Snowden was that government surveillance agencies have the ability to remotely turn on the cameras on your devices – such as your webcam on your laptop, or the camera on your phone – in order to, well, watch you.
Seems a bit far-fetched, but if you go to watch the new Oliver Stone biopic ‘Snowden’ there is a particularly striking scene in which Snowden, then with the CIA, and an NSA worker watch a woman undress through her webcam – without her having any idea.
As far as security measures go, sticking a bit of tape over your camera is pretty easy to do.
There are other, similar ways you can physically make your devices more secure – but more on that later.
Get yourself a VPN
A Virtual Private Network, or VPN, effectively changes your IP address and encrypts your web traffic, so that all of your activity is hidden from your ISP.
Basically, when you connect to the internet you usually first connect to your ISP – or Internet Service Provider – which then connects you to any websites or other internet-based things you want to access. All of your web activity goes through your ISP’s servers, and can therefore be viewed by your ISP.
But when you download and use a VPN, it will replace your IP address with its own – usually based in a different country somewhere – so that your ISP thinks that you’re accessing the web from wherever the VPN is based.
By doing this it hides your web activity from your ISP, and therefore the government.
As a happy coincidence, it also happens to let you get around country-based restrictions on Netflix, BBC iPlayer, 4OD or whatever if you’re out of the country.
And maybe most importantly, even if you’re not that concerned about government surveillance, VPNs help protect you from hackers when you log on to public WiFi hotspots – which are notoriously insecure.
There are plenty of good VPN options out there. For example F-Secure’s Freedome comes pre-installed on some PCs, and has a one-month free trial before you commit. Disconnect, which we’ll discuss in a second, also has a VPN service.
Beware, however – there are some free VPN services, but you can’t really trust them not to sell on all your data. There’s also no guarantee that they’re anywhere near as secure, which would defeat the whole point of having one.
Disconnect is a programme that prevents invisible websites from tracking which sites you visit, which is mainly a concern if you don’t want businesses building a massive, saleable profile of you.
Over years companies have developed advanced analysis technology, transforming online advertising from a few over-eager emails urging you to buy viagra to something far more sophisticated.
Using Disconnect goes some way to stopping you from being packaged up and sold as a commodity to businesses eager to spam you with stuff, and then sell your details on again.
The basic option, which you can install on a single browser, is free, or you can get a version that works on multiple devices for a $40 (£32) one-off fee.
Start using HTTPS everywhere
This won’t really do much when it comes to government surveillance, but it’s a good way to stop yourself being targeted by cybercriminals.
No doubt you’ve noticed that when you’re on a particularly sensitive site, such as your online banking or a (decent) online shopping portal, the HTTP in the web address has been replaced with HTTPS.
HTTPS is just a way of making sure that the website you think you’re visiting really is the website you’re visiting.
A classic technique amongst hackers and spammers is to create a fake website or web portal that looks almost exactly like one you’re already used to – for example, your bank’s online banking login page, or a shop you would usually trust. Criminals are then able to trick their victims into divulging all their login and, in many cases, bank account information.
Because of this most major banks and sites use HTTPS by default, but not all of them. Just to be safe, enable HTTPS Everywhere – an extension which forces your browser to use HTTPS whenever possible.
You can download it through the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s website.
Get yourself an encrypted email account
Here comes the fun stuff – encryption.
In a nutshell, encryption stops your communications from being intercepted by a third party, i.e. GCHQ, the NSA, or your obsessive ex-boyfriend who works for a telecommunications company (we’ll come onto that soon).