Maybe you’re a close protection officer, trying to arrange a safe route through a dangerous location, or a surveillance specialist trying to communicate with others in your team.
Perhaps you just don’t trust the local government. Whatever the situation, it’ll almost certainly be easier to focus on the task at hand if you aren’t worrying about whether your messages were possibly subject to being intercepted.
Below, I’ll walk you through some of the most common misconceptions people have about digital communications and explain how to contact someone securely and anonymously using a few easily-accessible online tools.
Myth 1: Most Messaging Services Are Safe & Secure
Online privacy is a hot topic right now, and messaging apps are trying to cash in on the trend. For instance, Facebook (one of the worst offenders for bulk-data collection) recently introduced “secret conversations” but failed to mention that while such messages are encrypted, company staff can still access them. This also means that Facebook-owned WhatsApp (previously the messaging app of choice for privacy-conscious users) can no longer be relied upon.
This isn’t to say that you can’t communicate privately online. In fact, several new platforms have appeared in direct response to the growing need for secure communications. Some of the most popular, such as Signal and Telegram, have even been used by protesters in Hong Kong. So far, these have proven to be the best of the bunch. Simply put, if there were a way to break their encryption in a reasonable amount of time (which there isn’t), the government would have found it already.
Myth 2: Using Public Wifi Networks Makes You Anonymous
Communicating while on public wifi is the 21st century’s version of “calling from a payphone.” It is far less secure than people think. To begin with, locations with public wifi (airports, coffee shops, and so on) tend to be covered by CCTV. Additionally, the server will almost certainly record the user’s MAC address. This means that once the authorities have access to your device, they can conclusively determine whether you were the one using the network or not.
Even more problematic, public wifi networks are prime targets for hackers. All an attacker has to do is turn their phone into a portable hotspot with the same SSID and password as the real network and watch as people send their internet traffic through his device. If you absolutely have to use a public network, it’s best to connect to a Virtual Private Network (VPN) first. These hide your true IP address and encrypt your traffic, preventing it from being read even if it’s intercepted. Just remember to choose a reputable service that keeps no logs, like ExpressVPN.
Myth 3: Your Phone is Always Listening & There’s Nothing You Can Do About It
To be clear, our devices do collect a lot of information by default. In fact, depending on which services you’re signed into, it can access everything from your GPS data to your microphone. Further, we now know that certain organizations can turn on your device and listen in remotely, while still making the device appear to be powered down.
Short of leaving your phone at home (or in the fridge, as NSA whistle-blower Edward Snowden recommends), there’s little you can do to stop government-mandated tracking. You can, however, prevent most apps from monitoring your activities. First, delete any non-essential apps to limit the number of companies that have access to your device. I’d also recommend you only connect to the internet via a VPN, and replace Google services with privacy-focused alternatives like Firefox Focus and DuckDuckGo.
Next, sign out of every account, especially Google and Facebook, turn off your phone’s location and ad-tracking settings and clear the stored data of every app that remains. You should now be able to use the internet without having your whereabouts recorded at all times.
Ultimately, digital security is a fluid and ever-evolving discipline. However, it is just as important as physical protection. You don’t have to be an expert, but by keeping a watchful eye on the latest developments in encryption and surveillance, you’ll be able to better advise your clients as to the safest way of contacting you when pre-established communication channels are no longer an option.
How anonymous are your conversations, really?
By: Ian Garland
Ian is a computing graduate with a love of technology and programming, particularly in the area of machine learning.