Russ Harvey Consulting - Computer and Internet Services

Your Privacy At Risk

Everyone is Collecting | Safer Browsing | Take Back Your Privacy

Your privacy is at risk like it has never been before, yet most folks think they have no need for concern. They are wrong!

The Internet was made for everyone but is being hijacked by big corporations that are turning people into products without their knowledge or consent. — The Hidden Business of the Internet
Even if we think we have nothing to hide, all of us, whether world leaders or ordinary citizens, have good reason to be concerned. — TomDispatch
[A] federal court in the Eastern District of Virginia held that individuals have no reasonable expectation of privacy in a personal computer located inside their home. —

Stop the changes to Rule 41. Don't let the US Government hack our computers

The government hacking into phones and seizing computers remotely? It's not the plot of a dystopian blockbuster summer movie. It's a proposal from an obscure committee that proposes changes to court procedures — and if we do nothing, [Rule 41] will go into effect in December. —

Privacy is Not About Hiding Wrongs

Protecting your privacy DOESN'T mean you have something to hide.

The most common retort against privacy advocates — by those in favor of ID checks, cameras, databases, data mining and other wholesale surveillance measures — is this line: If you aren't doing anything wrong, what do you have to hide?

… [This] accept[s] the premise that privacy is about hiding a wrong. It's not. Privacy is an inherent human right, and a requirement for maintaining the human condition with dignity and respect.

Liberty requires security without intrusion, security plus privacy. Widespread police surveillance is the very definition of a police state. And that's why we should champion privacy even when we have nothing to hide. — Bruce Schneier: The Eternal Value of Privacy [emphasis mine]

More about why privacy matters:

YouTube Video: EFF/Greenpeace/Tenth Amendment Center airship over the NSA's sprawling Utah data center. Click to view

Collecting Domestic Phone Records Unconstitutional

The NSA surveillance program [Section 215 of the Patriot Act] collects hundreds of millions of phone records daily. One federal judge criticized the program as beyond Orwellian and likely unconstitutional. And even the government-appointed Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board has said this program doesn't make us any safer, stating that they couldn't find a single example of a threat to the United States where this program made a concrete difference in the outcome of a counterterrorism investigation. — Fight 215

Section 215 expired on June 1st but the U.S. Senate passed the USA Freedom Act the next day by 67–32.

The Act did place some restrictions on surveillance, but not enough given the wholesale abuses by the NSA. See USA Freedom Act passes: what we celebrate, what we mourn, and where we go from here.

While the stated purpose of this data collection is to prevent future terrorist attacks, the incompetent investigations into prior acts is poor evidence of such intent.

Everyone is Collecting Information

Everyone is collecting vast amounts of information about you — governments, businesses and the sites you visit on the Internet.

And it is probably going to get worse. The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), Trade in Services Agreement TISA and Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) have all been open to industry input but closed to both non-profit groups that look out for the public interest (e.g. the Electronic Frontier Foundation) and our elected government representatives.

Legislation will likely be required to manage this “no holds barred” collection of personal data just as certain questions are not acceptable on an employment application and access is provided to challenge your credit reporting data.

Big Data

Big Data is the current mantra of organizations. How to obtain it, store it, process it.

From the dawn of civilization until 2003, humankind generated five exabytes of data. Now we produce five exabytes every two days…and the pace is accelerating. — Eric Schmidt

If you're using privacy software like Ghostery on your web browser, you've probably noticed that most sites now use at least beacons, analytics services, page widgets and other third-party page elements that are secretly tracking your every move.

Your Devices Are Watching You

The problem of privacy is only going to get worse as the Internet of Things evolves. Already there are more connected devices than people in the world. There is an imminent explosion of devices that will track every aspect of our lives.

“Consented” Eavesdropping

Virtually every “smart” device is gathering information on you (perhaps including your private conversations).

It's the age of ubiquitous surveillance, fueled by both Internet companies and governments. And because it's largely happening in the background, we're not really aware of it.

…[W]e learned that Samsung televisions are eavesdropping on their owners. At some level, we're consenting to all this listening. A single sentence in Samsung's 1,500-word privacy policy…. — Bruce Schneier on CNN

Smart Meters Reveal Much About You

Smart meters do more than simply remove the need for meter readers to visit your home or business a few times a year. Analogue meters simply recorded the total amount of electricity used between readings.

With the new smart meters your electrical company knows the timing, duration and quantity of electricity you use. Like any collected data, it reveals much about you, including highly marketable data using technology with significant health risks (privacy information begins at the 24:24 mark but I strongly recommend watching the entire presentation).

Windows 10 is Spyware

Windows 10 is spying on you, especially if you're using the default privacy settings during installation, log in using your Microsoft Account and use Cortana.

With Windows 10, Microsoft has failed to be completely transparent with users about just what is going on in the background. Sure, the information is out there, but it is hidden away, difficult to interpret, and — let's face it — not something that the vast majority of people are going to spend the time to hunt down and digest. — BetaNews

The new Microsoft Services Agreement is a 12,000-word document where you essentially agree to give up your privacy.

Even the contents of your emails and documents stored in private, offline folders can be subject to scrutiny and “disclosure” (to unspecified parties), according to the wording of Microsoft's privacy policies. — Bernard Marr

Many smartphone devices already collect this information. However, by making Windows 10 mobile-first, cloud-first on desktops and laptops (where more sensitive personal and business information resides), they have effectively extended this lack of privacy into more dangerous territory. Soon Windows 10 will become the only Microsoft option.

In May 2016, in an action designed in a way we think was highly deceptive, Microsoft actually changed the expected behavior of a dialog window, a user interface element that’s been around and acted the same way since the birth of the modern desktop. Specifically, when prompted with a Windows 10 update, if the user chose to decline it by hitting the ‘X’ in the upper right hand corner, Microsoft interpreted that as consent to download Windows 10. — EFF

Microsoft's tricks and schemes to get Windows 7 and 8 users to move to Windows 10 were nothing less than what you'd expect from malware.

Let's face it: Windows 10 IS spyware and Microsoft cannot be trusted.

Apple Treating Privacy Differently

It doesn't have to be like that. Here's a new Apple policy related to the information they collect to help you navigate using their maps application:

Maps is also engineered to separate the data about your trips into segments, to keep Apple or anyone else from putting together a complete picture of your travels. Helping you get from Point A to Point B matters a great deal to us, but knowing the history of all your Point A's and Point B's doesn't.Apple quoted in The Washington Post

Apple changed their DRM policies which affected some users with their own music when Apple Music was released. Some report losing copies of their own music when unsubscribing from the service.

If consumers even know there's a DRM, what it is, and how it works, we've already failed. — Peter Lee, Disney Executive in an interview with The Economist in 2005.

Printer Tracking

The U.S. government made a secret deal to place yellow dots onto every page printed from many (perhaps most) colour laser printers, ostensibly to track counterfeiters.

We've found that the dots from at least one line of printers encode the date and time your document was printed, as well as the serial number of the printer. — EFF

This reminds me of the old mystery novels where they identified the typewriter that printed a ransom note by pointing out the misaligned letters. As justified as that sort of application may be, there are bound to be abuses by law enforcement of any tracking system.

“We're Only Collecting Metadata”

Many organizations indicate that they are “only collecting metadata.”

Research has shown that using only call metadata, the government can determine what your religion is, if you purchased a gun or got an abortion, and other incredibly private details of your life. Former director of the NSA and CIA, Michael Hayden, recently admitted: We kill people based on metadata. And former NSA General Counsel Stu Baker said: metadata absolutely tells you everything about somebody's life. If you have enough metadata, you don't really need content.EFF [emphasis mine]

Try asking any of these organizations for their metadata and you'll have a visit from their lawyers.

Why Metadata Matters

How revealing metadata can be is demonstrated in these three (rather obvious) examples presented by Kurt Opsahl at CCC on December 30, 2013:

  • They know you rang a phone sex service at 2:24 a.m. and spoke for 18 minutes. But they don't know what you talked about.
  • They know you called the suicide prevention hotline from the Golden Gate Bridge. But the topic of the call remains a secret.
  • They know you spoke with an HIV testing service, then your doctor, then your health insurance company in the same hour. But they don't know what was discussed.

Why metadata matters further expands this concept and helps you to better understand what metadata is and how it affects us.

Anonymous No More

A more intensive look at telephone metadata reveals much more. Your privacy could be compromised by linking the timing of anonymous data to data that directly identifies you via credit card, hotel stays and more.

All this can be used to build a profile of you that may make judgement calls which are then processed as “facts” by other parties. Metadata is surveillance.

Even something like Alfred Kinsey's sex research data from the 1930s and 1940s isn't safe. Kinsey took great pains to preserve the anonymity of his subjects, but in 2013, researcher Raquel Hill was able to identify 97% of them. — Data and Goliath: The Hidden Battles to Capture Your Data and Control Your World by Bruce Schneier

There was much less information collected in those days than we routinely and blindly provide today.

Privacy Much More Difficult

How would you feel about every document, photo and file on your computer being printed and posted in a public place? There is even more at stake:

[K]now that every border that you cross, every purchase you make, every call you dial, every cellphone tower you pass, friend you keep, site you visit, and subject line you type, is in the hands of a system whose reach is unlimited but whose safeguards are not. — CITIZENFOUR documentary

The Everything We Know About NSA Spying video is an excellent overview on the NSA spying and shows just how extensive the reach of this program is and how easy it is to become a target.

In the "new propaganda era" we are entering, where the frontier between information, communication and propaganda becomes blurry, the world needs independent journalists, who engage in the pursuit of the truth, who respect standards of ethics, and whose mission is to give citizens of this world tools to understand what surrounds them. That is to say, in a word, free journalists. — Defence Handbook For Journalists and Bloggers

Avoid Giving Information Away

Everyone that asks you to fill out a form — whether a paper form or on-line — is collecting personal data.

Once you provide that information, it is no longer in your control. While everyone is diligent in collecting your information, they are less likely to be as careful in protecting that information — particularly if an opportunity to profit comes along.

Privacy Policies are Changing

You only need to look at the way Facebook, Hotmail and others so quickly changed their privacy policies to enhance their profitability. You're on your own when it comes to protecting your identity.

If the service is free, then you are the product. — The Day We Lost Everything

What is their Privacy Policy?

You should always read and understand the privacy policy of any site before you choose to give personal information.

You need to check this policy from time-to-time as the privacy policy might change for a number of reasons including purchase of the company or a new business plan.

Any site without a privacy policy probably does NOT have your best interests at heart.

That said, it becomes increasingly impossible to read the privacy policy of every website (or to understand the complex language used) A study by researchers at Carnegie Mellon concluded:

…if the average American were to actually read every single privacy policy of every single web service that she used in a year…[t]he average user would have to spend between 181 and 304 hours each year reading privacy policies. — “Disappearing Phone Booths: Privacy in the Digital Age”

Who Has Your Back?

EFF 2015 report on the track record of companies in protecting your privacy

Who has your back? 2015 track record for social media, communications and other companies in releasing private information to the government.

Learn how to avoid giving information away (including protecting other people's email addresses) and how to remove malware (software on your computer that reveals information about your surfing habits — including toolbars).

Governments Collecting More Personal Information

Governments are collecting more about you and your Internet activities.

Never in history has a surveillance state and a representative form of government existed side by side. A free society and a surveillance society cannot be reconciled. Biometrics is the linchpin to a surveillance society. — Constitutional Alliance
Never give a government a power you would not want a despot to have. — John Gilmore

The Canadian government will not allow its data to be stored on servers outside Canada. Canadians should be similarly concerned about the loss of privacy and protection.

  • Most, if not all, social media data is being stored outside Canada and no longer has the protections afforded by Canadian law.
  • Most webmail is stored on servers in the U.S. or other countries.
  • Your emails are scanned to profile you to serve ads, alter search results, and other purposes based upon the emails you send and receive if you're using Gmail, Yahoo! mail and similar services.

Microsoft is fighting a December 2013 federal search warrant demanding that the company release emails stored in Ireland.. This demand that data stored on overseas servers be made available should concern everyone. The US is not the only country doing this.

StartMail ($59.95 per year) provides an alternative to ‘free’ email services that aren't free — you pay for them by sharing the most intimate details of your life with corporations and marketers. StartMail's privacy policy.

You can find out more about governments collection of personal information at:

Other reports about privacy and surveillance:

“Data and Goliath: The Hidden Battles to Capture Your Data and Control Your World” by Bruce Schneier

Recommended Reading

Data and Goliath: The Hidden Battles to Capture Your Data and Control Your World by Bruce Schneier is an imperative read for everyone. Read the introduction.

The powers that surveil us do more than simply store this information. Corporations use surveillance to manipulate not only the news articles and advertisements we each see, but also the prices we're offered. Governments use surveillance to discriminate, censor, chill free speech, and put people in danger worldwide. And both sides share this information with each other or, even worse, lose it to cybercriminals in huge data breaches.

Much of this is voluntary: we cooperate with corporate surveillance because it promises us convenience, and we submit to government surveillance because it promises us protection. The result is a mass surveillance society of our own making. But have we given up more than we've gained? In Data and Goliath, security expert Bruce Schneier offers another path, one that values both security and privacy. He shows us exactly what we can do to reform our government surveillance programs and shake up surveillance-based business models, while also providing tips for you to protect your privacy every day. You'll never look at your phone, your computer, your credit cards, or even your car in the same way again.

Recommended Documentaries

Frontline: ‘United States of Secrets’

Frontline's United States of Secrets is a powerful look at the dangerous spying by the NSA on their own citizens and the revelations following the release of the Snowden documents.

Frontline investigates the secret history of the unprecedented surveillance program that began in the wake of the 9/11 attacks and continues today.

The two-part series is available on Netflix:

Episode 1 shows how the dangerous plan to greatly increase the power of surveillance on the American (and international) public was secretly authorized with the stated goal of finding unknown terrorists within our midst.

Several members of the NSA and other government bodies opposed the plan on the basis that it overstepped the requirements and undercut civil liberties enshrined in the U.S. Constitution without any real oversight.

Episode 2 looks at the increasing commercial surveillance by companies like Google and later Microsoft, Facebook and others to generate massive advertising income. This information was later co-opted by the NSA and, in the process, further eroding every citizen's privacy. There is no evidence that any of this surveillance has made us any safer (think of the Boston Marathon attacks — the sort of event this program was supposed to prevent).

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Safer Browsing

Cookies Report on Your Web Habits

People have become more aware of the amount of information that is collected about them while they are on the Internet using such devices as cookies. You can deal with cookies using some of the many utilities available on the Net or by using the tools provided by modern browsers (Firefox recommended).

Help is Pending…or is it?

Current browsers have the capability of telling a site that you don't want to be tracked. But that assumes that a site will bother to respond. There are few, if any, such mechanisms in place.

Panopticlick is an online test that analyzes how well your browser and add-ons protect you against online tracking techniques, even if you are using privacy-protective software.

Opt-Out Cookies

Another option is to use the services of a site such as the Network Advertising Initiative which offers to place an opt-out cookie on your computer for certain ad servers such as DoubleClick.

Flash Cookies

Many sites use flash cookies (Local Shared Objects or LSOs) that are not deleted when you remove traditional cookies. Adobe provides information on how to manage or disable LSOs, but ignorance makes most users vulnerable to exploitation by sites that use them.

CCleaner is capable of cleaning LSOs, but this is not enabled by default.

Flash is listed as one of three programs that make Windows vulnerable to malware (as well as Linux and Mac if Flash is installed). As technology moves away from Flash, the risk of LSOs should diminish.

Have a look at my listing of Firefox add-ons. Some allow you to manage or remove LSOs but status can change quickly so I won't duplicate the listing here.

Your Choice of Browser Matters

Firefox Recommended | Internet Explorer | Google Chrome

The browser you use to surf the Web will make a different in not only what tools are available to you or how convenient the browser is, but also in terms of how much information you share in the process and what those gathering that information do with it.

Ixquick's StartPage privacy page has information about how simply using a search engine can leave behind a history that can last for years.

The problem is made even more dangerous as companies like Google become more powerful, purchase companies in areas they traditionally didn't have access, then combine data about their users between these companies. Running their free Gmail and Chrome browser will provide even more information about yourself, helping to create a more accurate profile to serve ads to. Google never forgets!

Firefox: A More Secure Browser

Firefox is my recommendation. Not only is it more secure, but it more closely follows web standards, making your experience a better one.

Firefox is made under the principle that security and privacy are fundamental and must not be treated as optional. Firefox is the only major browser not targeted by the NSA scandal and we're fighting to reform government surveillance for you. — Mozilla

Share what kind of Web you want. A human face is placed onto technical concerns in the related Firefox video.

Clear Private Data

Clear Private Date dialogue box

You should clear your privacy data (cookies, saved form information, cache and authenticated sessions) before and after on-line banking (or similar sites where there is the risk of revealing personal information of greater value).

These settings are on the Privacy tab in the Firefox Options settings. Firefox Options is located different ways:

  • Firefox 29 or newer: the Firefox menu is on the top right (3 horizontal lines).
  • Firefox 4–28: the orange Firefox button on the left contains the Options menu..
  • The Firefox Menu Bar (turned off by default starting with Firefox 4) has Options in the Tools menu.

Once the Options dialogue box appears, click on the Privacy tab and check Clear history when Firefox closes. You can choose which items get removed by clicking the Settings button on the right (see dialogue box above).

Internet Explorer: Simply Too Vulnerable

Internet Explorer (IE) is a major security vulnerability within Windows and therefore should not be used as your primary browser when surfing the Internet.

When the CVE-2014-1776 vulnerability affected IE versions 6–11 the US-CERT team (U.S. Homeland Security) recommended moving to an alternate browser. This is good advice even after the vulnerability is patched.

Microsoft made IE a key component of the Windows installer — a significant security vulnerability when surfing the Web. You can help reduce the risk by enabling the following settings:

  • Current versions of IE can check sites for forgeries (sites looking to exploit your trust of the real site) if you authorize it during installation.
  • Check "Prevent programs from suggesting changes to my default search provider" in IE's addons.

Security risks are not unique to Internet Explorer but its reach is deep into the Windows operating system, making it more vulnerable to security issues than any other browser.

You may need to use IE for some legitimate tools:

  • Microsoft's Fix it solutions need to run in Internet Explorer.
  • Symantec's AutoFix Tool must run in Internet Explorer in order to be able to make the necessary changes to Windows files.

Windows XP used IE to run Windows Update, a program that makes significant changes to your system and requires access to key Windows components. Microsoft Update is now built into Windows Vista and 7 making IE more secure.

Microsoft's Windows Update plug-in for Firefox as an alternative to using Internet Explorer is not recommended because this makes Firefox more vulnerable. It is better to use Internet Explorer only where necessary (and safe).

Move to Firefox and use the IE View addon to launch Internet Explorer ONLY where it is absolutely necessary. If a normal page won't load properly except in IE, you're probably better off going elsewhere for your information.

Google Chrome: Quicker, Convenient, Zero Privacy

Google Chrome (initially based upon the open source Mozilla code) has become very popular because it is much smaller and potentially faster than other browsers (at least as long as you don't use addons).

Collecting, Collecting, Collecting…

Chrome does this, in part, by keeping the user's data on their servers rather than on the user's computer. People have access to their data from any number of computers, phones and tablets.

This is convenient but eliminates your ability to fully control your own information. Google uses this information to serve more appealing ads based upon what you've viewed with Chrome.

Gmail Difficulties

Gmail has made it more difficult to simply download your Gmail to a standalone email client (an email program that stores your messages on your computer rather than on Google's servers).

Google wants you to leave a browser window open with Gmail running. By knowing the sites you're visiting they can present “more relevant” ads (i.e. ads that you're more likely to click on based upon your surfing history). Of course, with Chrome, they already know this.

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Updated: August 18, 2016

NSA taking all your data -- click to visit the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF illustration).

Restore Privacy

Take Back Your Privacy

As we saw in the introduction to this page, everyone is collecting information: governments, corporations, search engines and social media.

Google Analytics provides detailed information to website owners about who comes to a site, where they land, how long they spend there and where they go afterwards.

Google Analytics are only one of many such invasive tools.

Ghostery's “alert bubble” displays a list of 27 trackers found on

To the right, 27 trackers are listed in Ghostery's alert bubble while visiting the Forbes website.

Most websites you visit are probably collecting information of some sort.

These exploits are crippling the Web's ability to transform information. This has a strong echo of McCarthyism in the 1950s. The fear of surveillance is realistic and stifles personal expression.

People Becoming Concerned

Recent surveys regarding Americans' attitudes about privacy, security and surveillance show that people have little confidence that their data will remain private and secure — particularly in the hands of government:

Just 6% of adults say they are ‘very confident’ that government agencies can keep their records private and secure.

Reset the Net

But we're not powerless. There are things you can do.

Reset the Net. Take back your privacy and freedom.

Start by signing the Reset the Net pledge:

Mass surveillance is illegitimate. I'm taking steps to take my freedoms back and I expect governments and corporations to follow in my footsteps and take steps to stop all mass government surveillance. — Reset the Net


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A Virtual Private Network, or VPN, is often used by businesses to secure their private network over a public network. For most users this will mean securing your access over the Internet using a private VPN service so that your communications are encrypted.

The most important thing you need to know about a VPN: It secures your computer's internet connection to guarantee that all of the data you're sending and receiving is encrypted and secured from prying eyes. — LifeHacker

There are lots of VPN services. These resources will help you choose what is right for you:

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Social Media

Social media is a very important aspect of privacy because so much personal information is collected including facial recognition software, comparative and linked data (such as the "Like" button) and more. Are you sharing too much?

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Related Resources

Related resources on this site:

or check the resources index.

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