Privacy shouldn’t be the price of progress. Here’s how to keep your data safe

It’s much easier to protect yourself online.
It’s much easier to protect yourself online.
Image: Jianan Yu/Reuters
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The internet has shaken up so many parts of our lives, from media and manufacturing to mattresses, makeup, and making out. It’s weaponized our narratives, created heroes and villains, brought us closer together, and, in some cases, driven us further apart. It’s also created a lot of collateral damage, especially when it comes to privacy.

Over the last decade, we’ve watched a major battle play out. On the one side, privacy activists view freedom from surveillance as an inalienable right, essential to the healthy functioning of modern society. On the other side, people insist that, for our own good, governments and corporations should be allowed to track and monitor our most private information.

That battle has been won by the companies and the surveillance state. The Snowdens and Mannings and Winners and thousands of unsung heroes put up a great fight, but in the end, Goliath prevailed. Our secrets used to be our own. Now they’re owned by the platforms and the databases where we store them, and those are easy to penetrate. If telecom firms have it—and they do—the government now has the ability to get it. As Alan Davidson, the former chief lobbyist for Google, once put it, “If you keep it, they will come.”

Most of us have been willing collaborators in this privacy invasion. We confess our mental-health problems on Facebook, tell advertisers how many kids we have, and happily allow weather and traffic apps to know where we are at all times. That’s not totally unreasonable. Sure, we’ve given tech companies unlimited access to our data, allowing them to sell those insights and earn money from adverts, but in return we’ve received wonderful services such as email, intercontinental video calls, social media, and better weather predictions. We gave up our privacy, but we also allowed law enforcement officials to solve more crimes and disrupt terrorism, exposed more political corruption, fueled social movements, and helped topple totalitarian regimes.

There’s no such thing as a free lunch, right? As Henry Drummond says in Inherit the Wind, the classic 1960 courtroom drama about the Scopes Monkey Trial:

Progress has never been a bargain. You have to pay for it. Sometimes I think there’s a man who sits behind a counter and says, ”Alright, you can have a telephone, but you lose privacy and the charm of distance…Mister, you may conquer the air, but the birds will lose their wonder and the clouds will smell of gasoline.” 

So, is privacy the price we need to pay for progress?

Not so fast. We don’t have to accept its loss. We can still actively protect it.

The language of political philosophers and international lawyers can be useful here. They talk about two kinds of freedoms. The first are positive freedoms—the freedom to perform an action, access a resource, or control and direct one’s own life. For conservatives, these include things like the right to bear arms and the right to assemble and speak freely; for progressives, they include the right to safe reproductive care, the right of sanctuary for refugees, the right to receive equal pay, and the right to unionize. The second are negative freedoms—freedom from external interference that causes you harm. These include the right to live free from socioeconomic insecurity, the threat of environmental disaster, or the hazard of preventable injury and disease.

Most of the interesting stuff in politics happens when either one or both kinds of freedoms are lacking, or are at odds with each other. There’s a great moment in The Handmaid’s Tale, for example, where Aunt Lydia says to Offred, “There is more than one kind of freedom. Freedom to and freedom from. In the days of anarchy, it was freedom to. Now you are being given freedom from. Don’t underrate it.” Over the course of the novel, the truth is revealed to be the exact opposite: It turns out there’s no point in having freedom from harm if you don’t have the freedom to make your own choices.

Right now we still have the freedom to make our own choices when it comes to our digital lives. However, that kind of freedom—the freedom to actively protect our privacy—comes at a cost. If we want access to digital tools that allow us to remain incognito, then we have to understand that the same tools can be used by criminals, terrorists, and shady politicians. If we think that diversity and freedom are valuable parts of human existence in a global, hyper-digital, 21st-century society, then we have to give up a little bit of security.

This is where the next big privacy battle is going to be fought: over the right to use digital tools and services that hide us from prying eyes and obnoxious advertising, without fear of prosecution. We shouldn’t have to give up our data unless we choose to. And if we do decide to give it up, it should be an active choice that we make. We should make it in the full knowledge that for minorities fighting persecution at home and abroad, activists on the frontlines of environmental and social battles, and for democracy campaigners in authoritarian regimes, the right to privacy isn’t a choice: It’s life and death.

So if you think this is a fight worth having, I invite you to get serious about your privacy right now. Take control of your digital hygiene in the same way that you would take control over your health, your savings, or your right to vote.

Protect yourself from advertisers

You wouldn’t allow advertisers to put up posters in your home, so why let them pollute your online experience? Adblockers keep ads from appearing when you’re online, and they’re great. The best is Adblock Plus.

Stop advertisers from tracking you

Ghostery is a browser extension that will scan a website as it loads and show you all the the tracking cookies that load with that site. It also gives you the option to turn them off, and prohibit them from following you across the internet.

Change your settings on Facebook

This link will take you to the ads preferences page on Facebook. It will show you what brands Facebook thinks you like, what advertisers you’ve interacted with, and the categories Facebook uses to advertise to you. You can delete all that information. Facebook may still have it all, but it will no longer allow advertisers to use that info to advertise to you.

Download and install a VPN

A virtual private network (VPN) allows you to browse the internet without anyone tracking your IP address. Decent ones aren’t free, but they’re well worth the investment, and you can use them across multiple devices such as your phone or other computers. My favorite is IPVanish, which costs about $60 a year, and you can put it on up to five devices. If you’re a little daunted and want something super easy, then try TunnelBear, which is more user friendly.

Check to see whether your privacy has been compromised

There’s a great free online service called have i been pwned? that allows you to enter your email address and see whether any accounts have been hacked. It also allows you to set up a notification in case other accounts are ever compromised. If you have been hacked, change your password on that website and then…

Start using encrypted email

I recommend ProtonMail, an open-source service developed by CERN and MIT scientists and protected by Swiss privacy law. Obviously you’re not going to be able to switch all your email over to a new account overnight—but it’s worth making a start. One good way of doing this is to set up a new address and start using it with your family, partner, or a small group of friends, and then go from there.

Protect your messaging

At a minimum, you should already be using Whatsapp for all your texting. And if you want to get serious about messaging privacy, use Edward Snowden’s preferred service, Signal. Same idea—start using it with a small circle of friends and then expand outward.

Install a password manager

If you’re not already, you should be using a password manager, which is a service that generates random passwords for each of your online services and keeps them all in one place. They’re pretty user friendly; your best bet is 1Pass, which will do all the work for you. Yes you have to pay, but the peace of mind you get is well worth it.

Make sure you’re using 2 Factor Authentication (2FA)

If you really want to be secure, you need to enable 2FA on any site that allows it. This adds another step to the login process for popular services like Google, Facebook, and Twitter, and it’s the best way of ensuring security. At bare minimum, enable it for all your Google services. It’s easy to do, and here’s a simple guide to using the best one, Google Authenticator.