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How to Make Privacy Your “Default Setting” Online

Privacy is my default

What’s your default setting when it comes to privacy?

According to Wikipedia, a default setting is “a particular value assigned by an operating system and remains in effect unless cancelled or overridden by the operator.” The default is meant to be a usable value or condition that is “preset”. Without active intervention by an outside agent such as a user of the system, the condition persists.

Despite a steady stream of news stories which suggest we should be cautious, we’re surprisingly trusting when it comes to our privacy and what we expect from “default settings” online. We often mistakenly believe that social media, websites, and apps will naturally be aligned with our own privacy values.

So how do we change this? How do we adopt a preference for privacy as our default setting and remind ourselves to align our interactions with technology with our own values?

In yoga, Samastitihi (mountain or standing pose) is considered the “home” or neutral pose. It’s a place of awareness and stillness where practitioners begin and end their yoga practice. It is also “a call to action and an invitation to come to this moment, to clean the slate, to stand up and regain balance.”

Perhaps a similar moment of mindfulness is essential to our privacy practice, too.

What does it mean to make privacy our default?

Privacy is a personal value, and how much or how little privacy we need is a personal choice. For privacy to be our default, it must be within our control. If privacy is our default setting, it means we browse online, connect on social media, and use mobile technology with a belief that our privacy should be protected and respected automatically.

Yet privacy-by-default is not always the current practice. How can we change that?

As users of technology, we should develop our awareness of privacy issues and develop an active privacy practice. This includes making conscious choices about how we share information online. It means evaluating privacy policies and privacy settings so that we clearly understand what data is collected, who has control of it, and how they intend to use it. It means advocating and championing the cause for consumer privacy protections.

Companies should incorporate privacy by design functionality into their products and services, making user-centric design choices for managing privacy. Rather than beginning with “least private” or “partially private” default settings, maximally private options should be the default out of the box.

When privacy isn’t the default: How to limit online tracking

Our personal information is a hot commodity. The fact is we are being followed and profiled when we search, browse and shop online. Companies, governments, and other parties collect our Internet activity. Some tracking is used for analytics purposes (for example, to improve website performance), while other forms of tracking are used for advertising purposes. This information can be viewed, packaged and sold often without user notice or consent.

Some of this collected information takes the form of “search leakage.” As explained by private search provider DuckDuckGo:

“When you search for something private, you are sharing that private search not only with your search engine, but also with all the sites that you clicked on (for that search). In addition, when you visit any site, your computer automatically sends information about it to that site (including your User agent and IP address). This information can often be used to identify you directly. So when you do that private search, not only can those other sites know your search terms, but they can also know that you searched it. It is this combination of available information about you that raises privacy concerns.”

Aside from search leakage, many websites use special scripts, cookies, and other tracking technology. A recent Pando Daily investigation found that some websites have as many as 33 individual trackers installed.

There are a variety of browser plug-ins and software packages which can provide information about the types of services that monitor your browsing habits. Some will also allow you to block them from collecting and using your data. These tools provide insight and transparency about online tracking practices and in such a way put users back in control of their online privacy, enabling “privacy by default.”

Below is a brief list of some of these helpful tools. For more complete information about them, check out this article on Pocket-lint.

Most of the tools are free but offer premium services for a fee. The only drawback may be slower browsing times, depending on the tool.

The DoNotTrackMe tool is a browser plug in that automatically blocks tracking companies (including ad networks, social networks, and other data data collection companies) from tracking your browsing behind the scenes. DoNotTrackMe also protects your email address, phone, and credit card from being abused by companies on the web and on your mobile device. The tool is compatible with all browsers.

DisconnectMe is a similar private browsing tool that blocks over 2000 tracking sites. They also offer “Disconnect Search,” which is a specialized VPN (Virtual Private Network) that doesn’t log searches, IP addresses, or any other personal info.

Another tool that “shows you the invisible web” is Ghostery. It flags cookies, tags, web bugs, tracking pixels and beacons and provides information about over 1,900 ad networks, behavioral data providers, web publishers and other companies. This information helps you make informed choices about what you are and aren’t willing to share.

This is a private search engine that doesn’t collect or share your personal information. As an anonymous alternative to Google and other mainstream search sites, it doesn’t track you or your browser searches. It can be added to any browser as the default search engine. (Apple recently announced that it would support DuckDuckGo as a pre-set search engine in the new OS X Yosemite, coming this fall.)

HotSpotShield VPN allows you to protect your IP address and browse the internet anonymously while securing your connection to public WiFi hotspots. The tool also enables users to bypass internet censorship, restrictions, and gain access to geo-restricted sites.

Finally, the Tor Project offers software and an open network to help you defend against traffic analysis, a form of network surveillance that threatens personal freedom and privacy, confidential business activities and relationships, and state security. Tor was originally designed, implemented, and deployed as for the U.S. Navy for the primary purpose of protecting government communications. Today, it is used for anonymous browsing by the military, journalists, law enforcement officers, activists, and ordinary people who care about their privacy.

Until a bias for transparency and privacy is the standard online use your knowledge and tools such as those described above to make privacy your default.

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