The holidays are here, and I’m spreading good cheer by helping you up your privacy game (which is always a good idea, but especially so after news about incidents such as the Equifax data breach in September).
I’ve compiled a list of affordable gifts (some even free) that will help you rest easier about your digital footprint. The list was born from my own hunting around the web for things I’d like to use to protect my privacy. Realizing the variety of options out there, as well as the lack of an existing up-to-date guide, I decided to publish my findings.
Whether you’re shopping for a certified privacy evangelist like me, or someone who’s never heard of encryption, I hope this guide prompts you to inject some digital hygiene into your gift list.
A Virtual Private Network, or VPN, improves your privacy and security because it conceals your physical location (by routing your activity through a network), and because it prevents any snoopers from intercepting your online activity (by encrypting your signal). The best deal on the market right now is NordVPN, which earned a rare five star rating from PC Magazine, a reviewer that also offers a helpful breakdown of all of the best VPN options here. NordVPN is currently running a sale for “Cyber Month,” offering a three-year plan for $2.75 per month ($99 total) until December 6, after which their best deal will be $3.29 per month for two years. I recently purchased this service, and am very pleased with its speed and easy set-up.
ProtonMail Encrypted Email Account ($0.00-$28.49/month)
Until this year, Google scanned all emails in personal Gmail accounts to extract data to be used for targeted ads. Though, in this instance, the practice was discontinued, it is indicative of a broader reality of a lack of email privacy. Eliminate any doubt with a chic, secure Swiss email account from ProtonMail. Its client-side encryption sets it apart, protecting your emails before they are even sent to ProtonMail’s servers so that, even if the company wanted to mine your data, it couldn’t. Because ProtonMail doesn’t make money through advertising or data mining, it relies on voluntary paid accounts to keep its services running.
Your cell phone carrier knows exactly where you are all the time. If the idea of that information being sold to companies or accessed without a warrant by the government unnerves you, it might be worth investing in a faraday cage. A faraday cage is a signal-blocking enclosure that prevents a wireless device from transmitting any information on any network. Even turned off, cell phones can sometimes be tracked, so, to truly unplug, you need a signal blocker. Insert your phone into this pouch and you will be off the grid entirely. And don’t worry—it will reconnect and load all of your notifications the moment you remove it.
Tor Browser (free)
Tor is a web browser, like Google Chrome or Mozilla Firefox, but with an intense focus on privacy. It routes all of your online traffic through a global network so that it “prevents somebody watching your Internet connection from learning what sites you visit, it prevents the sites you visit from learning your physical location, and it lets you access sites which are blocked.” I’m sure you know people—you might even be guilty of this yourself—who think that turning on “Incognito Mode” means that no one is tracking them online (pro tip: it doesn’t). This year, give your less technologically inclined loved ones the gift of helping them install and use the Tor browser to actually free them of some of the constraints of online tracking.
I should note here that it is not practical to use Tor for everything. It is slower than other browsers, especially for mainstream services like Netflix and Facebook (which you probably would not want to use Tor for anyway, because you are automatically identified by logging in). Tor should be used for searches that you don’t want associated with your name or IP address, for accessing un-indexed deep web sites, or simply for experimenting with your privacy.
STEAGLE Laptop Webcam Cover ($8.75)
I was horrified the first time I went on Tor and discovered dark web pages offering paid access to people’s webcams, complete with analysis of the best times of day to watch. Webcam spying is possible and very real, but it can be prevented easily by covering your camera. You could always use a piece of tape to cover your lens, but why not opt for this higher-brow (yet still affordable) option that tells the world you’re serious about your privacy?
Third parties are constantly watching your digital movements through the use of third-party cookies and other tracking methods. Ghostery is a browser extension that allows you to view and control which trackers are accessing your online activity. Installing this free extension is a simple way to reduce the amount of data mining you’re subject to. Give the gift of knowledge and control by cluing in your loved ones to this service.
Flash drives can seem interchangeable and inconsequential. However, most of them are not secured, and some of them have even been infected with malware for the purpose of stealing your information. When transporting private files, you need a flash drive that cannot be compromised. This fully encrypted, password protected drive will do the trick.
Not scared enough about all of the ways you can be tracked and exploited online? Check out Dragnet Nation: A Quest for Privacy, Security, and Freedom in a World of Relentless Surveillance, in which Julia Angwin chronicles her attempts to erase her electronic record. In the process, she reveals the depth and convolution of the digital surveillance landscape that stands in opposition to our privacy.
Lyft Gift Card (any amount)
Lyft is not a privacy product in itself. However, its primary rival in ride-sharing, Uber, has a pretty bad track record with regard to transparency and handling of consumer data. A few years ago, Uber was criticized for its (now defunct) “God View,” which allowed its employees to view the real-time location of specific riders, and just last month it was revealed that, rather than report it to customers, Uber spent $100,000 to cover up a data breach that compromised the personal information of 57 million of its passengers.
By giving the gift of Lyft credit, you allow your loved one to choose the more privacy-friendly ride-sharing service without having to worry about price. Corporate policy shifts with the tide of profit. This kind of privacy-driven consumer choice is a powerful step toward improving the general state of corporate data responsibility.
Donation to a Digital Rights Advocacy Group (any amount)
Some people prefer to receive donations made in their name rather than gifts for the holidays. Impress your loved one who is already a privacy fanatic by giving to an organization such as the Center for Democracy and Technology, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the Electronic Privacy Information Center, the Free Software Foundation, or the American Civil Liberties Union (though the ACLU is not specifically a digital rights advocacy group, its significant work on privacy and technology merits its inclusion here). These nonprofits are consistent advocates and educators on issues of data privacy, security, transparency, and free speech, and are key to national and international policy discussions around digital rights.
Privacy is for everyone. Spread the word.
All views expressed here are my own and do not reflect those of my employer.