Jennifer Lawrence nude photos leaked online. Sony emails hacked. Facebook tracks us everywhere and experiments with our emotions. Google steals our passwords and networks. Snapchat pictures don't disappear. "TRUSTe Certified" is a fraud. Federal marshals trick our phones with their "dirtboxes." Edward Snowden exposes the data breaches of the NSA. All are true, wow. It feels like the only way to stay safe online is to be offline.
But I've got to be connected -- we all do today. And I've always loved tech -- particularly the helpful kind built by entrepreneurs who respect and honor their customers. It is time for all of us to take actions that can powerfully protect us and send a signal to the companies who would like our business.
In the spirit of Data Privacy Day, observed annually on Jan. 28, I suggest we all take real action and change who we do business with. The following conscientious companies and their cool, respectful products are mostly free and fun, with privacy built into them to help prevent the type of scandals you read about in the daily news. Here are my recommendations.
Web Browser: Tor
Want to surf the Internet without people minding your business? Try the Tor browser. Here's how it works. When you're surfing online, the browser connects to different relays, wiping its tracks along the way. It's high-level security without a popcorn trail or digital footprints. Privacy pundits identify Tor as a great resource for activists living under oppressive regimes or people in search of general anonymity.
To further enhance your privacy, you can add apps to Tor that deactivate cookies (not the Oreo kind). (formerly DoNotTrackMe) and AdBlockPlus keep you anonymous, block pesky banner and pop-up ads, mask your email and credit cards, and also prevent you from visiting known malware-hosting domains. I consider such actions one small step for online privacy, and one giant leap for the privacy revolution conversation.
Search Engine: DuckDuckGo
Here's what I find both creepy and annoying with a Google search. I look for a Frozen doll for a present for a friend's daughter. For the rest of my life, I find banner ads for Frozen merchandise on every site I visit. So much for living in the moment.
The independent search engine, DuckDuckGo has no long term memory. That means no search history. Another differentiator is that DuckDuckGo offers more than just a bunch of links, providing direct answers to your queries. Such features haven't been lost on users. DuckDuckGo saw searches jump 50 percent in 2014, from more than 4 million to 6 million per day.
Messaging App: Wickr
With most messaging apps, such as WhatsApp, you find oversights in encryption. Adding fuel to the fire, these apps also track who you talk to and when. Messaging apps such as Wickr and Telegram offer secure messaging with self-destructing messages. You decide who sees what and for how long. Each message is encrypted with its own unique key. If you go the Tor browser route, you can try Cryptocat, which offers similar encryption and anonymity.
Social Media: MeWe
MeWe is a private communications network that builds privacy by design into its service. While sites such as Ello, YikYak, and Tsu have made headlines lately positioning themselves as "anti-Facebook," their members and the press have questioned the real privacy and value of those platforms. MeWe offers a next-generation Facebook alternative: a safe and private network with the backing and support of people such as Tim Berners-Lee, founder of the World Wide Web.
MeWe members freely communicate in an uncensored environment with full ownership of their data and a safety firewall preventing strangers, employers, or advertisers from spying on them. MeWe also provides the world's first Privacy Bill of Rights for its members, a short, easy-to-understand privacy statement that outline its member-first thinking and revolutionary member protections.
Cloud Storage: SpiderOak
The cloud is all the rage these days. Yet it's still a work in progress and one I wouldn't recommend for storing your nude selfies. Why? Because a cloud is a datacenter, run by a service provider, who keeps a copy of your stuff. On the bright side, you can use any device to connect to your content. You can also access a copy on your hard drive, which syncs with your cloud copy, so you're always up to date. The challenge is with the service provider ensuring the safety of your content.
SpiderOak encrypts your files on your computer and then uploads them to its datacenter. Since you do all the privacy acts on your device, you're merely sending to them a protected copy that they can't decrypt. The company's mojo is strong enough that Edward Snowden recommended it over Dropbox as a cloud storage option. In the privacy debate, that's high praise indeed.
Credit Card Protection: PayPal
In 2014, virtually every American was hacked in some nefarious manner. Oftentimes, the way we found out about it was when our credit/debit card mysteriously stopped working and a new card arrived in the mail. PayPal offers a great resource in the USA to add a layer of protection to your money. Select one card that you commit to for using your online purchases and set up a PayPal account using that card. If there is a site that doesn't accept PayPal, look for alternatives and send them direct feedback telling them that without PayPal, you can no longer be their customer.
Wireless On The Go: Verizon Jetpack
Did you know that anytime you connect through an open Wi-Fi system, such as those at the airport or your local Starbucks, you are an easy target for hackers? Any competent hacker within the vicinity could capture your passwords, gain access your credit card numbers and bank accounts, even put the hooks in to your system to kidnap your hard drive at a later time. You are easy prey when connecting to the web on your laptop or phone through an open Wi-Fi gateway. Your best defense is a strong offense. For $20 per month you can have your own private Wi-Fi network securely connecting you to the web wherever the day takes you. I use Verizon's Jetpack, which works separately from my smartphone, for even more protection. Most carriers around the USA offer similar products.
It is truly a brave new world we live in, with remarkable technology that we could not even have imagined a quarter-century ago. In the midst of this rapid technological ascension, we unknowingly became victims to data hounds, hackers, and inappropriate government spying programs. The good news is that privacy is making an important comeback as a core value inside helpful cutting edge technology companies. Let's support them, take our privacy back, and have fun!