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It's Choose Privacy Week. What great timing! Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg recently gave robotic answers for two days to a crowd of lawmakers who wanted their four minutes to take a whack at him. British MPs are extremely cross with him and may issue a formal summons for him to appear, and the European Union is in line, too. It's as if lawmakers awoke from a decade-long slumber and are mad as hell that Facebook has so much influence on people and elections. As if this hasn't been going on for years . . .

Libraries make an effort to choose privacy - to do what we can to keep your records confidential, to defend your right to read without it being used against you, to object to mass government surveillance. We don't get it right. We license materials from vendors that really like to know who's reading what, we use Google Analytics on our websites, and we sprinkle our pages with social media beacons that are busily scooping up information. Choosing privacy is hard when so many forces have chosen to ignore it.

I'm also mindful of a weird paradox. Librarians also have to support gathering information that is useful and handled sensitively. I had the unexpected pleasure of attending a conversation at Harvard's Kennedy School on data equity and Census 2020 with smart people like Luke Swarthout, director of digital policy for New York Public Library and Colin Rhinesmith, who teaches at Simmons and does research on digital equity. This will be the first census conducted online, which makes sense but will challenge folks who depend on the public library for their internet access or people who live in rural areas that are underserved. It's also incredibly important for redistricting, for distributing funds to cities and states, and for a myriad of uses. It's going to be hard to convince people to participate when they are distrustful of government or worried about a data breach. It doesn't help that funding for this massive effort is falling short and a question about citizenship that hasn't been on the general census since 1950 (though it has been asked of a sample) is likely to worry non-citizens who know any day they could be deported simply for showing up at a court hearing or dropping their kids off at school. This isn't going to help anyone. (The excuse, that it's to strengthen the DoJ's enforcement of the Voting Rights Act, is a clever test to see how dead irony really is.)

It's illegal for the Census Bureau to share information but given the current climate and given that it's online for the first time ever, there are lots of ways this could go wrong. We have just two years to keep an eye on the ball and figure out how to help our communities understand what's at stake. This is one situation where government data-gathering is conducted by people with strong ethics who want to make sure everyone counts. I worry about surveillance, but I worry, too, about how distrust could affect the way this important information is collected. 

So that's on my mind. But in the meantime, here are ten easy things you can do to make your life online a little more private.

1.  Install the uBlock Origin browser extension for Chrome or Firefox

Pros: It will block ads that can track you or inject malware onto your computer.

Cons: Some valuable news sites (like, ahem, this one) depend on advertising revenue to pay for newsgathering. It's easy to turn off a blocker selectively. Sometimes that option is forced: many sites now require that you either turn off an ad blocker or pay for a subscription.

2. Install the Privacy Badger browser extension.

Pros: It will block all third-party trackers on the websites you visit.

Cons: Sometimes you have to adjust the settings if a page doesn’t load properly. It won’t protect you from trackers the site itself has put on their site.

3. Look for the green lock symbol next to URLs.

Pros: If a site has a green lock icon, that means it’s encrypting everything you do there. Your ISP can’t track everything you do on encrypted sites and you don’t run the risk of a “man in the middle” attack intercepting your internet activities – especially important for internet commerce.

Cons: A site that isn’t encrypted may have unique information you need. You’ll have to weigh the tradeoffs. You will also have to beware of encrypted sites that trick you into giving them too much information. (A fake site might mimic a real one in order to grab your data.) Encrypted doesn’t always mean safe.

4. Start using a VPN (virtual private network)

Pros: Using a VPN confuses trackers and prevents your ISP or others from logging exactly where you are and what you’re doing. This is particularly important when using insecure public wifi.

Cons: VPNs usually require a subscription. It’s hard to know which ones are legit. They could track and sell information about your online history just like your ISP, though good ones don’t. They slow your speeds and sometimes sites will detect VPN use and prohibit you from continuing.

5. Download and use the Tor browser

Pros: Tor routes your searches through multiple servers, which covers your digital tracks, reduces “fingerprinting” (collection of information about your computer and browser), and it’s free.

Cons: All that rerouting makes it a bit slower than other browsers.

6. Use a search engine that doesn’t collect personal information and make it your browser default

Pros: Google is not just the provider of a good search engine, it’s an advertising company that relies on gathering information about you to target ads. There are alternatives such as DuckDuckGo and StartPage that don’t track your searches – and they don’t personalize the results in a way that means your search gives different results than your neighbor’s.

Cons: You might miss some results, particularly ones that are locally relevant.

7. Use unique, strong passwords and a password manager such as LastPass or KeePass.

Pros: A password manager can generate strong passwords for you and remember them. All of your passwords are saved in one place and you only have to remember one.

Cons: All of your passwords are in one place (so if something goes wrong all of your accounts could be vulnerable) and you have to remember the password to your password manager.

8. Install Signal on your phone for private, encrypted messaging.

Pros: Your messages are end-to-end encrypted and only you and those who you communicate with can see them – not even the company supplying the app can read your messages. This makes it particularly useful for activists who are at risk of law enforcement subpoenas being served on their communications.

Cons: The people you communicate with have to have the same app installed, and if someone steals an unprotected phone, they could spy on a private a signal group.

9. Which reminds me - set a strong passcode on your phone.

Pros: Your phone is full of information about you; a passcode will help keep that information private.

Cons: You’ll have to remember and tap in a passcode to use your phone. If you are forced to unlock your phone (such as at a border crossing) a passcode alone won’t protect you.

10. Turn off geolocation and Bluetooth on your phone when you don’t need them.

Pros: You’ll be less vulnerable to having information about your location and activities collected by beacons or devices (such as a Bluetooth-enabled car).

Cons: Some inconvenience. You have to change settings every time you want the benefits of geolocation or Bluetooth and then remember to switch them off.

So it can be a hassle, but the amount of time a password manager alone has saved me has made up for the time it takes me to tap a code in every time I want to use my phone. I choose privacy In at least some small ways - how about you?


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