SHEDNOTES 84: A Filofacts on Online Security

The Shed generally takes the publish-and-be-damned point of view but recognises that there might be occasions in life when it is worth considering a service such as HideMyAss! , which was the subject of a feature in Observer 15.3.15.

Reporter Nicholas Tufnell wrapped up with a briefing on security online, which The Shed has borrowed for its Filofacts on IT. Tufnell said:

1) If you use the same password for everything, it’s time to stop. Not only is this incredibly risky, it’s entirely unnecessary thanks to the plethora of cross-platform password managers on the market, most of which are freely available or very cheap. We like Passpack and LastPass

2) Secure your browser. With some very basic analytics tools, a website can pinpoint your location, what links you’ve clicked, how many times you’ve visited in the past and even track your cursor movements. These are largely used to make your browsing experience more convenient, but if you’d rather have more control over what you’re revealing about yourself, try installing a few plugins on your browser. We recommend starting out with Ghostery, a plugin that tracks the trackers, allowing you to block anything it finds.

3) Secure your email. If like most people you’re using a webmail service such as Gmail, Hotmail or Yahoo then you might want to consider using a more secure alternative. It’s more than likely you’ve been using these for years, so switching to a new email address entirely is probably not a very viable option. However, if you ever need to send a sensitive email, then it’s a good idea to have a secure account for those occasions. Hushmail is a great place to start – it’s a free (but limited, unless you subscribe) Pretty Good Privacy (PGP) encrypted webmail service, with no third-party advertising sneakily harvesting details from your account in an attempt to push more relevant or personalised ads your way.

4) Use a proxy or a virtual private network. A proxy can mask your online activity by relaying data (accessed through your browser) via a server in a different location, thus obfuscating the source of your original requests. A Virtual Private Network (VPN) is very similar, except these are intended to mask all data, rather than just the requests sent through your browser. Proxies tend to be free but not very convenient and sometimes quite slow (try hide.me), whereas a good VPN is more convenient and arguably more secure, but will almost always require a monthly or yearly subscription. Jack Cator’s HideMyAss is a fairly user-friendly VPN and offers a 30-day money-back guarantee. Hotspot Shield is one of the most popular free VPNs.

5. Delve into the deep web. If you’re feeling very adventurous, you can dabble with Tor, a network of virtual tunnels that allows individuals to surf the web and communicate anonymously. Occasionally referred to as being part of the ‘deep’ web, the data accessed through Tor is unindexed by search engines, making it, in a sense, invisible. The fundamental idea behind Tor is to allow people to communicate over public networks without having to worry about their own privacy. This is great for whistleblowers, people from countries that block some web content, government or military communications, or individuals who desire a very robust form of online privacy. Sadly, this also opens the service up to some nefarious and illegal activity, so be careful where you tread.

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