Governments have employed the infrastructure and tools developed by tech giants to analyze people’s movement to either forecast trends or to track its citizens.
As early as a few months ago, all these measures wouldn’t seem like the script of a dystopian novel, not actions taken by liberal governments in democratic countries.
Yet, here we are.
And the only thing making the current situation possible is the state of emergency declared by countries hit by the pandemic, including the US.
What does the state of emergency mean for your privacy
A state of emergency is a unique situation in which a government can halt normal democratic and constitutional processes when faced with a threat to its country’s stability or population’s wellbeing.
In plain words, it means sacrificing a few democratic processes (sometimes even rights) for a more hands-on approach in [the government’s] dealing with the threat.
Besides location monitoring, another area where you are monitored is the digital world. Your digital footprint is recorded at every click of a mouse, keyboard stroke, or smartphone screen tap.
How are you tracked online?
There are two main methods of online tracking.
Government monitoring through ISPs (Internet Service Providers)
All your online traffic passes through your ISP’s servers before being routed to websites and apps. Making it easy for any ISP to be the enforcer of governmental directives. Besides the Great Firewall of China, another country enforcing ISP-level monitoring (for censorship purposes), is Turkey, where its citizens face restricted access to social media every time there are anti-government protests.
Third-part behavior tracking for monetization purposes
On the other side of the tracking business, are big tech companies using tracking for targeted advertising purposes. I don’t need to remind you of Cambridge Analytica and other privacy scandals that surfaced over the years. This type of surveillance is performed through the so-called trackers. Small pieces of code (such as the Facebook Pixel) installed on multiple websites. And are used for profiling users.
If you access, two unrelated websites (using the same trackers), for example, a pet supplier and, at the same time, you search online for “how to propose to your fiance”, it will be easy for ad trackers to identify you as an engaged male with a pet.
Add a few more websites visited to your online profile, and these trackers can even identify your age group and level of income.
However, things shouldn’t be this way. While we have taken these levels of monitoring as a default way of being. There are tools that you can use to protect your privacy both during this state of emergency and afterward.
Here are the steps you need to take to protect your privacy during the state of emergency. There are three steps you need to do: protect your device, encrypt your traffic, and hide your real IP address.
How to stay private online in 3 easy steps
Step 1: Ring-fence your devices
One small step for you, one giant leap for your privacy is the use of custom-build services, tools, and app focused on privacy.
Here are the recommended apps and services you should use to protect your privacy during the state of emergency and beyond.
Public DNS servers
A DNS server acts as a de facto address book matching domain names (such as youtube.com) to the IP address of YouTube web servers.
If you didn’t change your DNS server, you probably use the default one provided by your ISP. Meaning that your ISP (and your government) know what website you want to visit, even if the sites you want to visit use HTTPS connections and mask your real traffic.
The first request of your device to the DNS server is sent in plain text, making it very easy for the ISP to log your traffic.
You can protect your privacy at the DNS level by using a privacy-focused DNS service, such as CloudFlare’s 220.127.116.11 free service, which will handle all your DNS requests, bypassing your ISP’s ones.
Use multiple browsers and user-agent modifiers
Using a single browser on all your devices is like living, eating, sleeping, and bathing in the same room with other people. No matter what you do, others will easily see your actions.
Online, you have the same lack of privacy when you use the same browser (let’s say) for email, for online shopping, and random web browsing. You make it tremendously easy for trackers to identify and profile you.
Here’s the thing you disclosed by using a single browser:
- Your IP address
- Your device type
- Your browser (Google Chrome, Mozilla Firefox)
- Your browser’s user-agent (a string of characters used to identify the browser and the device used)
If you visit 100 websites using the same browser, even in incognito, you’ll be recognized. And no matter what other steps you take, your privacy will be compromised.
Now, the solution is to use multiple browsers, two or three browsers, and to ring-fence your traffic as follow:
Use Google Chrome for account login (Gmail, Facebook, Twitter, your online banking account, etc). By login into an account, you disclose your identity to websites, so try to reveal the same identity to all of them.
Use Mozilla Firefox for random web browsing, such as when looking for stuff online before buying, for a new diet, or for how to change a tap. Anytime you need to look for random information, use Firefox.
Lastly, install ad blockers. These extensions identify ad scripts on websites and block them.
Some of the most popular ad blockers are uBlock Origin and Adblock Plus.
Step 2: Encrypt your traffic with a VPN
The next step in protecting your privacy is encrypting your traffic so that your ISP and the local government won’t log or block your traffic.
A VPN protects your privacy by encrypting your whole device’s Internet traffic and routing it to a VPN server. In this way, anybody located between your device and the VPN server won’t be able to decode your traffic.
For enhanced privacy, use VPNs with extra features:
Kill-switch – blocks your device’s connections in case the VPN drops so that you won’t be exposed
Disable WebRTC – WebRTC is a protocol used by your browser and if exploited, it can leak your real IP address even when using a VPN.
Step 3: Constantly change your IP address
The third step that you should take to protect your privacy during the state of emergency is to change or rotate your IP address, so websites and third parties won’t be able to tie your behavior to a particular set of IPs.
You can achieve this in two ways:
- Use VPNs Split-tunneling – this feature helps you choose which apps will use the VPN (and disclose another IP address) and which apps will use your regular connection. With this feature, you have the power to choose which apps will go “secret” and encrypted and which will behave “as your normal self’.
- Use proxies over VPN – a VPN replaces your real IP address with the server’s one. However, for enhanced privacy during the state of emergency, you can add one extra layer to your connection by using proxies on top of your VPN connection. Making it exponentially difficult for third parties to identify you. You can use proxies over VPNs but not the other way around because proxies don’t encrypt your traffic.
The state of emergency will pass, but compromised privacy won’t.
States of emergencies caused by distress are expected to pass and life to get back to normal. This is something we all expect and hope.
As Yuval Noah Harari pointed out in Financial Times, the current “storm will pass”. But some enforced measures and elevated governmental powers and privileges enacted during the state of emergency have a high chance of staying even after the pandemic threat passes.
About the Author: Chris Roark
Addicted to anything tech-related. I write about innovation, automation, marketing and technology. Currently, I am the content strategist of BestProxyProviders, a proxy review website. Follow me at @bpp_proxy