Digital self-defense

By Uwe Buermann, January 2015

How we can protect what remains of our privacy on the internet.

Photo: © ca./

That the Internet and, above all, our highly treasured smartphones are extensively misused not only by the intelligence services but also by companies both large and small for the systematic surveillance of users is a widely known fact. Not only the countless reports in the media but also service providers such as Google, Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Ebay and Co make no secret of this. Whoever reads their respective terms of service would know that the ultimate aim of these companies is the surveillance and analysis of the user for the purpose of marketing, with many possible resulting opportunities for manipulation.

As the German news program “Tagesschau” reported in 2014, the number of users who are changing their behaviour in view of digital developments and are meanwhile refusing to register on social networks or send private information over the internet is increasing. But there are still millions of others who, while perhaps having their concerns, continue to use their smartphones 24 hours a day in their day-to-day life, without much thought as to the countless apps and offers that they are making use of. Many of them continue to reassure themselves with thoughts such as, “they can’t really have permanent surveillance on all of us”, or “who would be interested in me and anyway, I have nothing to hide”. To all of these people I recommend reading such articles as the one about the “innocent Smartphone” on the online portal “Netzpolitik”.

Because when we and, above all, our children are confronted with the consequences (worse conditions for obtaining insurance, no housing in an appropriate neighbourhood, not being able to find a suitable job ...), none of us will be able to say, “I didn’t know that. But we live in the information age, it’s all really useful and we can’t completely shut the Internet out of our lives, eventually everybody’s going to be using it”. There is something to this argument but this has become first and foremost the classic argument of all those who blindly follow the crowd. It is not true that we cannot do anything about it without immediately becoming an outsider. Each and every one of us has to consider the question of which way to go on a daily basis. There are only two possible answers: either comfortably to follow the other careless users of the internet, in which case the price is the absolute loss of privacy, or to take the step which is without a doubt a lot less comfortable and to fight for what remains of our privacy and autonomy. Nobody can avoid having to make this decision.

There really is no other option for the person who wants to completely save their privacy than to move to the jungle and refuse to use any form of media whatsoever. Even those who avoid using social networks, refuse to have a smartphone and encrypt their emails have to be prepared that other people with whom they associate will be constantly entering information about them in to the worldwide data network.

Here are a few concrete tips that everyone can follow in order to protect their privacy:

• Live with diversity: companies such as Google, Apple, Facebook and Microsoft want everything to come from a single source and have everything connected over their respective clouds. Through doing this, each company collects information about the user. We should spread out our information; that means that when a PC is used at home, an iPhone or iPad should be used out and about, and vice versa. The use of a cloud system should be fundamentally avoided.

The same principles should be followed when using a PC. Use a variety of browsers! When using a Google service (search engine, Google Maps, Youtube), use the Google browser, Chrome, but for everything else use at least one other browser such as Firefox.

If you really need to use Facebook, never open another tab, instead use another browser for all other internet activity.

• Take advantage of all the possibilities: Become familiar with the settings of your browser. To stop the passing on of your data to a third party, use a “Private Window” (Firefox), “Incognito Mode” (Google Chrome) or “InPrivate Browsing” (Internet Explorer). Additionally, further browser add-ons, such as No Script, which blocks Javascript embedded in websites, can be downloaded.

• Always read first: Before you decide to download an app, always look up which rights the app has in the “App Store” or the “Google Play Store” and consider if you really want to agree to them. The use of WhatsApp and the Facebook app is out of the question. Use alternatives such as “Threema”. If you use Facebook, then only in a browser.

• Live as you would on a submarine: Use a wide range of devices and when not in use turn them off, so that you are, at least at times, invisible to the hungry data collectors. It is still possible to find a sat nav, so use one of those and while you are driving, turn your smartphone off completely, do not just leave it on standby.

In addition to your smartphone, buy a classic mobile without an internet connection, so that you can still be reached in an emergency. Whenever you are not actively using a device with internet capabilities, turn it off.

• Spread out your data: Private data, such as your photo and video collection, your music collection as well as any private documents should not be stored on a device which is connected to the internet. Either use a second computer or an external hard drive which you only connect when your computer’s internet connection is turned off.­

• Avoid wireless networks: Not only due to health reasons but also for reasons of data protection, wireless networks should be avoided, especially at home. Instead use an alternative such as D-Link among others.

All the tips here can be implement by anybody. Of course life will become a bit more cumbersome, and above all you will then always be compelled to act in a sensible manner, but that is the point. Many more concrete tips can be found, for example, in the book “Fake It!: Your Guide to Digital Self-Defense”.

About the Author: Uwe Buermann, born 1968. Lecturer at various teacher training colleges (Kiel, Hamburg, Kassel, Alanus University), freelance lecturer and author. Research fellow at the Institut für Pädagogik, Sinnes- und Medienökologie (IPSUM). His latest work is “Aufrecht durch die Medien” published by Flensburger Hefte Verlag.