Saturday, December 7, 2013

Internet privacy in a box, or on a thumb drive

Want to surf the Internet without being  spied on by the NSA or big corporations? Read on.

A few days ago, Michael Johnson sent me an article about a product I hadn't heard about.

The article  from MIT's Technology Review discussed the Safeplug, a $49 device that routes Internet traffic through the Tor network, which  provides a degree of anonymity to Internet usage by making it harder for a snoop to see which sites you are visiting. It does this by routing your Internet activity though a bunch of different computers so that someone trying to monitor you (a company gathering data on you for marketing purposes, for example) can't figure out your IP address and therefore identify you. It can also let you visit sites that are being blocked.

One downside of the device is that if you aren't a computer expert, you might be giving yourself away, anyway. As the Technology Review article explains, "Mehmet Güneş, an assistant professor at the University of Nevada, Reno, who studies anonymity tools, says that users of the Safeplug will only remain truly obscure if they adjust their online behavior in other ways. 'Tor provides unlinkability from source to destination, and people confuse that with anonymity,' he says. While using Tor people can easily leak identifying information via the Flash plug-in, other media add-ons, or information they type or send, says Güneş."

I'm guessing that the people this product is aimed at -- folks who know so little about computers they can't figure out how to download and install a Tor browser bundle, which costs nothing -- are exactly the people who won't know how to avoid leaving the other telltale clues the professor is referring to.

An alternative to Safeplug, something that I'm using right now to compose this blog post, is a free Linux product called TAILS, which stands for "The Amnesic Incognito Live System."

TAILS is a software product that is built using Linux, an open source computer operating system that can be used as an alternative to Windows. Linux is free, will run on most computers that ordinarily use Windows, and usually comes with a graphical  computer interface and set of applications that most people can figure out how to use, with a little trial and error.

Because Linux is an open source product, it isn't owned by anyone, which means that anyone can create their own version of Linux. There are  hundreds if not thousands of different flavors of Linux, including well-known varieties such as Ubuntu.

TAILS uses Debian Linux, one of the common varieties of Linux, but tinkers with it to add a variety of privacy-protecting tools and configurations.

It forces all of  your Internet sessions through Tor, like Safeplug does, but it adds many other features. The browser it uses, Iceweasel (the "politically correct," i.e. open source version of Firefox) has a bunch of configurations and extensions built in. It connects to websites using https whenever possible (which means that many of your connections are encrypted), blocks ads and doesn't save a history of the sites you've visited. There's even an onscreen keyboard, which you can use if you're paranoid and think someone is keylogging you. (If you aren't paranoid enough yet, follow the link and learn what "keystroke logging" is! By the way, the network administrator where you work can use keystroke logging and figure out what you're typing on your computer anytime he feels like it. Have a nice day!)

TAILS runs from your thumb drive. It doesn't use your computer's hard drive, so when you finish running it, there's no trace of what you've been doing on your machine. (You can save data and software configurations on an encrypted area of your thumb drive, or upload stuff into the cloud). A PGP applet is built in, so you can easily encrypt messages and files. I've found I can use the applet to encrypt messages I've pasted in Gmail messages, and decrypt messages that others have sent to my Gmail account.

TAILS comes with the normal productivity tools most people need, including a word processor (OpenOffice), text editor and image editor. It's rather light on entertainment software and didn't recognize my sound card, so when I want to listen to music or watch a TV program or movie, I have to use Ubuntu. It might work fine with your computer's audio hardware.

To use TAILS, you'll need to follow the instructions on the site for downloading it and sticking it on a hard drive. TAILS is upgraded every few weeks to fix security patches, so you'll be expected to download an upgrade often. The site explains how to do this while keeping your bookmarks, data, etc.

Unless you quit your job and devote hours a day to studying computer security, it's very difficult to become a computer security expert. It's a specialized field of study. A huge advantage of TAILS is that it's put together by computer security experts who have figured out computer security for you. If you run it, and follow their instructions for using it, you are protected against most computer security hazards. Using TAILS costs nothing, if you can scrounge up an a thumb drive drive, which in any case isn't very expensive if you have to buy one.

The downside is that you will have to take time to download TAILS, update it, and figure out how to use it. TAILS does have quite a bit of documentation, and it's generally rather well done and easy to follow, especially compared to the documentation for other Linux software programs.

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