Obviously there is a bit of a kerfluffle at present as regards Cambridge Analytical’s use of Facebook data… personally I find this rather oddly timed since Cambridge was really just doing the same darn thing many had done before them (although perhaps less honestly), and not especially well even, and most of the people freaking out now didn’t freak out then. But in this case I’ll happily take a good thing (people remembering that all that stuff they post online is accessible to people they aren’t thinking about), even if for odd reasons.
Speaking personally, I’m rather more concerned by the fact that just about every big tech company in existence has made it pretty clear they don’t really like conservatives, so… without adopting a bunker mentality, just being smart about it, the more I can do to reasonably shield myself from them, the better. So, shared not as an expert in all things computers, but just as a decently intelligent person who has done some looking into these things, some applications I have found helpful:
1. Ghostery. I actually didn’t know about Ghostery until relatively recently – on desktop it is a browser extension, and on mobile its own browser, that will block (with options) an enormous amount of the hidden stuff on webpages trying to track your activity online. See below for what it shows as blocked when you visit cnn.com, for example. It also blocks many advertisements.
Potentially annoying thing about Ghostery, especially just after you start using it – some links (in email, especially) will not work with tracking blocked. I had to whitelist the site used by The Transom email newsletter, for example, since I read that every day.
2. DuckDuckGo. An alternative (and pretty well known) search engine that doesn’t store information about you or track you across the web. But I have also noticed that it seems to give a greater diversity of results than Google or Bing, and that I especially like. One of my objections to social media’s attempt to show me what it thinks I want to see, is that effectively that means showing me the same sort of stuff over and over again. Which… is actually not what I want to see, but nice try, folks.
3. NordVPN. A VPN service has a lot of benefits, and NordVPN also includes a “CyberSec” feature to block phishing websites and the like. A VPN service protects you on public wifi networks (probably the most important feature, especially when traveling), prevents websites from tracking you by your IP address, and will even prevent your ISP from seeing what you’re doing. The big risk, especially if you are using a free VPN, is that the VPN service itself can see everything you’re up to. So it could potentially make your connection *less* private rather than more. NordVPN has a cost, and claims that (being based in Panama) they are not required to, and do not, even keep logs of your activities.
Potentially annoying thing about using a VPN service – some websites are configured to block connections from known VPN servers. (Netflix is one big example, since people use VPNs to get around country restrictions. It seems like Microsoft OneDrive doesn’t work either, at least with some servers.)
4. Fastmail. A slight-cost ad-free email service that many have been switching to as an alternative to, especially, Gmail. Curiously enough (or perhaps not), seems like a lot of missionaries we know overseas use Fastmail.
5. F.B. Purity. A browser extension despised by Facebook, because it gives you much greater control over how Facebook *appears*, and in particular lets you block sponsored posts and those annoying trending topics. So, it’s clear why Facebook doesn’t like it, but since it’s just a browser extension there isn’t much they can do about it. (Just to be clear, this extension won’t increase your Facebook privacy at all, ultimately you’re just given control over how it appears.)
6. Tweetdeck. Not as capable as F.B. Purity, but a nice and, incidentally, ad-free way to interact with Twitter in a multicolumn format on desktop. Twitter actually owns Tweetdeck, I assume they are OK with it being ad-free because it is especially used by “power users” who create a lot of content that draws people to the network generally.
7. And finally – it makes sense to be smart about your Facebook and Twitter linked applications. This is, after all, exactly what caused the most recent kerfluffle – personally I wouldn’t say “disable them all, shut it down!”. But I would say it makes a heck of a lot of sense to go through them every now and then and disable or unlink the ones you haven’t used in a long time. Even if you don’t have privacy concerns with the app producer, what if their own systems get hacked? Just makes sense from a security perspective to disable what you’re no longer using.