Privacy Paranoia

Swami Gulagulaananda said:
"I know what you did last summer... And thus can predict what you will do this summer."

In the popular TV series "Person of Interest", a genius software programmer writes an incredible piece of software that penetrates all networked devices, accesses data, compiles it to create profiles, connections and predict future events. The series shows the ease with which hackers can penetrate our handheld devices like cellphones and laptops to access even the camera and microphone. Considering the rate at which Machine Learning and Artificial Intelligence are advancing, the story is not necessarily far-fetched.

There is an old saying that talks about the business models of free software service providers like Google, Facebook, Twitter, Whatsapp and others - If you are not paying for it, you are the payment. In other words, the data that you are supplying is substantial enough. If you think hard about it, the amount of data that you have provided Google is terrifying. The same holds good with Facebook. We have shared our names, dates of birth, location, pictures, details of schools and colleges, friends, places that we visit and a whole lot more - All voluntarily on a platter. And there is a ton of other data that they can mine - our political views, inclinations, things that we love and hate in general, the nature of pictures and videos that we enjoy and share. Also, who else we believe enjoys similar content - by tagging them. They know how you write posts, emails, times of the day that you are active - well, you see the picture.

I watched an interesting video where Aral Balkan spoke about how Google is trying to become more intrusive with every passing day - What started with analysing our searches, later grew with studying our browsing patterns through ads and cookies. Then, they began understanding what sites we browse through the browser. They own an operating system that knows what content you are consuming outside of Google's services. They own devices. And now, they are proceeding to own networks to go further. It will become astonishingly hard to escape the Google ecosystem.

While this is sufficient to make one feel uneasy, a discussion about the nature of our security practices made me question my behaviour. For instance, I use passwords that are hard to guess - A healthy combination of upper and lower cases, numbers and special characters. However, as I am still human, I don't want the stress of remembering too many passwords, and I am sure that I am not alone in this. So, I reused some of my passwords on multiple websites - Until Mac's feature nudged me one day, and it showed me how many times I had repeated my passwords. 

There is a website (https://haveibeenpwned.com) that lets you check if you have a compromised account. A word of caution before you go around providing your email addresses - A long time ago, there was a website that claimed to evaluate the strength of your password. Thousands of people tested it out - It turns out that the site was creating a database of passwords used by people.

In my opinion, we should begin opting for better online behaviours. For example, consider switching to Firefox, install a few popular tracker blockers in addition to enabling Firefox's native feature, switch to DuckDuckGo as your search engine and start using a VPN (Consider using ProtonVPN, NordVPN or Opera's built-in version). Another useful tip is to make use of Two-Factor Authenticators on commonly used websites like Facebook, LinkedIn, AWS Console, among others. They generally support options like Google Authenticator and Microsoft Authenticator. Many people use password managers like 1Password and LastPass, but I don't prefer using them. An alternate email service provider is Proton Mail. Review permissions that you have provided to various apps - There are many using location when they aren't supposed to need it. On a personal front, I have almost reduced the usage of Facebook and Twitter to zero. I also reviewed the Google privacy settings and disabled about everything there.

Now, one could argue that disabling their so-called privacy settings doesn't mean that they are not tracking me anymore. That is true. It is just among the first few steps in the right direction. For starters, it makes us conscious of all the places where Big Brother tracks us. The truth about the internet is - Once we put our content out there, it is almost impossible to eliminate it. However, we could systematically try to reduce adding newer content - principally unrequired content. I wholeheartedly have believed that social media has democratised media, but out of that, a new evil may have been born.

To truly understand why I added paranoia in the title, you should know that it is remarkably hard to trust anyone. If you have not written the software (or can read and understand the code), it may be impossible to trust it. A lot of people believe that Tor is secure - Naturally, The Onion Routing (TOR) has many layers, like peeling the onion, and should be challenging to trace back. But is it? The reality is that most of us don't understand if the implementation is as per the claim - We often trust and move on. I read a conspiracy theory that says that the gov't built TOR so that an illusion of security is created and makes you careless. There are several other crazy creepy-pasta stories to make you want to avoid using TOR.

There are numerous stories of hackers getting into security cameras. How do you know that hackers haven't gotten into your phones? Could they be accessing your cameras and microphones without your knowledge? So you have possibilities of both legitimate access and illegitimate access.

No, I am not a (privacy) nut; and no, I am not going out of my way to hide or have something to hide. If one principally understands the power of network, data and its potential implications, one would be wise to limit what one puts out there.

Unless you are Howard Finch; Invictus Maneo

Suggested Reading: 1984
Suggested Watching: Person of Interest

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