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Technology

How to Shut Out Online Snoopers

Concerned about your privacy? Use these tools to protect it.

Sarah Downey (pictured) is a lawyer and senior privacy strategist at Abine, a Boston company that provides online privacy tools. Here are excerpts from Kiplinger’s recent interview with Downey.

Given recent disclosures about government surveillance programs, how can people maintain privacy?

You can’t fly under the radar without unplugging completely. But you can reduce your digital footprint. The focus is on government tracking, but the government is getting information from private companies that collect your data for commercial purposes. The supply chain starts with Google, Facebook and others mining data to make a product better or to sell you something. The goal is to reduce the amount of data that these private companies have on you.

How?

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Start with our DoNotTrackMe add-on for all major browsers. It blocks companies from collecting your data, and it makes these firms “visible,” so you can see the huge list of companies trying to get your info. For searching online, try DuckDuckGo.com. By default, it does not store any cookies or your IP address (a number that corresponds to the device you’re using and divulges your location), which can be tied back to a detailed profile of you. You’ll see ads, but they’re based on what you type into the search bar—contextually relevant but privacy-friendly.

What about e-mail?

Services such as Gmail offer convenience—you can search through past e-mails, for instance. The trade-off is a lack of privacy. You can use encryption programs such as PGP (Pretty Good Privacy) with any existing e-mail account, but there are drawbacks. If I want to send you an encrypted e-mail, you also have to have PGP software installed on your computer. It’s free (see versions for Mac and Windows) but tough to set up. If you want to open a new e-mail account without migrating your existing one, there are services that market themselves based on privacy concerns, including Unspyable, CounterMail, Silent Circle, Lavabit and Shazzle. Most charge a few bucks a month to subscribe.

And texting?

For Android users, there’s TextSecure. Like PGP, it requires both people to use the app, but it’s free and easy to use. For iPhones, there’s ChatSecure. For online instant messaging, you can use Pidgin or Adium. Both the sender and recipient have to install the same program, then either can initiate an off-the-record conversation.

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