If you want to improve your online privacy, you’re supposed to “use Signal, use Tor.”
The clichéd phrase, now five or so years old, was meant to be a sardonic joke underscoring the need for more nuanced online-security and privacy advice. But even as the humor became lost on security practitioners (not to mention the general public), the point remains an important one: There’s a lot more to managing your online-data privacy than just using an end-to-end encrypted-messaging platform (Signal) and a network based on an onion-routing browser (Tor).
Although using Signal and Tor do provide varying degrees of security, anonymity, and privacy (depending on how you use them), there is much more to improving online privacy. In the absence of strong consumer privacy regulations and enforcement, software tools to enhance user privacy have thrived. There are numerous browser add-ons to reduce the personal information that data brokers collect, apps to encrypt and reroute Web traffic, and websites to help figure out who (or what) is tracking you.
Your personal privacy risk assessment
It’s no small feat, and not very effective, to start using a bunch of apps simply because they’re supposed to be good at protecting privacy, says Lorrie Cranor, professor and director of the CyLab Security and Privacy Institute at Carnegie Mellon University. There are no cookie-cutter models, she says.
“When people say, ‘What should I do?’ I ask them to think about the things that are most important to them,” Cranor says.
She notes that many people conflate online privacy and security, though there is crossover between them.
A couple “of the big-bang-for-the-buck things are using a password manager [and] good password habits,” she says. “If they don’t want to be tracked in their browsing plug-in, use an ad blocker—with the caveat that some things on websites break because of it. So if you turn it off, you have to remember to turn it back on.”
Studies consistently show that although people are concerned about online privacy, they lack the support and tools to act on those concerns. More than 70 percent of Americans believe that their smartphone activities are being tracked by advertisers and tech companies. They don’t believe that they personally benefit from this data collection, and they want the right to control and delete that data, according to a May 2020 Pew Research report. And 85 percent of consumers across the United States, China, India, the United Kingdom, and Canada worry that they can’t trust corporations with their data, despite executives stating the opposite, according to a February 2020 PricewaterhouseCoopers survey.
There are no online privacy-protective solutions that will work for everybody, but experts say that answering questions about what to protect is helpful in figuring out what privacy protections are needed. These questions include:
- What kinds of personally identifiable information am I sharing, and with whom?
- Do I care about seeing online ads, and are they targeted?
- How private do I want my conversations to be?
Figuring out their privacy threat model is one of the most important steps consumers can take in deciding which online privacy actions they need to take. Even privacy experts don’t lock everything down.
This story was originally commissioned by Dark Reading. Read the full story here.