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How to Avoid Internet Surveillance (12 Tips)

How to Avoid Internet Surveillance

The web seems like a bastion of freedom, though that sadly seems to be just a mirage nowadays. Everywhere you go on the Internet, someone’s waiting around the virtual corner to log your traffic.

It sounds bad (and it is), but at least there are things you can do. Here’s how to avoid Internet surveillance without too much hassle.

What Is Internet Surveillance?

Internet surveillance is when an entity (government agencies, ISPs, cybercriminals) logs what you do on the Internet – what websites you search for and access, your unencrypted communications, the files you upload or download, and so on.

Usually, governments will log what you do on the web by forcing ISPs to store connection and usage logs, and share them with the authorities. They also use surveillance agencies to monitor specific people and data.

Internet surveillance can also take the form of cybercriminals who snoop on unencrypted traffic in the hopes of stealing sensitive data like credit card info, login credentials, and bank account details (among other things).

How to Stop Government Surveillance (And ISP Surveillance Too)

Government surveillance sounds (and is) scary, but luckily there are a few things you can do to combat it.

Oh, and if you want to learn how to stop Internet providers from spying on you, these tips will help you as well since this advice applies to both ISP and government surveillance. The same goes for hacker surveillance.

Now, here’s what you need to do:

1. Use a VPN Service

VPN stands for Virtual Private Network, and it’s an online service that hides your IP address and encrypts your Internet traffic. If you’re looking for an efficient way to avoid Internet surveillance, you can’t go wrong with a VPN.

Since the service encrypts your traffic, that means no surveillance agency, ISP, or hacker will be able to monitor your online activities. If they try to do that, they’ll just see gibberish and nothing more.

And yes, that’s true even for public, unsecured WiFi networks.

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Also, by hiding your real IP address, VPNs make sure nobody can use it to find out personal things about you, like:

  • What country and city you are from.
  • Who your ISP is.
  • What your ZIP code is.

Just make sure the VPN service you want to use doesn’t log any of your data. Ideally, they should have a clear no-log policy, and should also not be located in a country that’s risky for user privacy, like the US or the UK.

A Kill Switch will also come in handy since it will cut off your web access if your VPN connection ever goes down, making sure you’re never exposed to online surveillance.

Also, please keep in mind that all VPN providers will have to hand over user data to the authorities if their users do illegal things with the VPN (like scamming people, spreading malware, selling drugs and weapons, etc.).

We’re in no way saying you want to do anything like that, but it’s something you need to be aware of.

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2. Use Antivirus/Antimalware Programs

Governments are not shy of using malware to monitor people. Surveillance agencies in Germany can apparently use Trojan spyware to keep tabs on people, for example. And according to this article, stuff like that is happening in other countries too.

And it goes without saying that cybercriminals love to use malware to monitor and steal sensitive data from online users. Not to mention the more skilled hackers can even get their hands on government-developed malware.

So, you should install security software like ESET and Malwarebytes on all your devices. And make sure to keep them up-to-date, so that they can spot the newest types of malware.

3. Don’t Get Too Comfortable Around Device Cameras and Microphones

Remember that viral image of Mark Zuckerberg, where his laptop camera and mic jack are covered with tape?

There’s a good reason why he did that – the government can actually hack your webcam (and likely your microphone too) if you give them the opportunity to do it.

So, you should take action.

For webcams, you can just get an adhesive or clip-on cover – there are tons of options to choose from. You can also use some tape, though that might damage or leave residue on the camera.

As for microphones, well there’s no exact way you can make sure they’re not recording you. Turning them off or covering the mic jack is definitely a good idea, but if you need to discuss private, sensitive stuff without having to worry about someone recording you, just leave the device in a different room.

Besides that, you should also change the default login credentials for all your devices that have cameras and microphones.

4. Use Encrypted Chat Apps

Messaging apps provide a decent level of security, but not all of them actually protect your privacy from surveillance.

Facebook Messenger, for example, is a very popular instant messaging app. Well, ever since 2018, the US government has been trying to force Facebook to break its encryption and wiretap it.

WhatsApp, which offers a nice level of encryption, is also owned by Facebook, and cybercriminals were able to use government surveillance software to compromise it by taking advantage of a major vulnerability.

Safe to say, the authorities can do something similar with other popular apps simply because they store a lot of user data. Not to mention hackers would love to target them too.

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Fortuantely, there are some decent, highly-secure messaging apps which actually respect user privacy that you can use:

  • Signal – The app is open-source, free to use, and makes use of end-to-end encryption to protect all your messages. What’s more, Signal doesn’t even store the encryption keys on their servers, but on devices that communicate with each other. Their Privacy Policy is extremely short, and makes it clear they can’t decrypt or access the contents of user messages. How do you know the government can’t force Signal to give out user info, though? Because they already tried to. After a lot of attempts, all the FBI got was the date the account was created, and when it was last accessed.
  • Tox – A messaging apps specifically designed to combat government surveillance, Tox is open-source, free to use, and offers powerful encryption to make sure nobody can monitor your messages. What’s more, the app doesn’t have any central servers since it relies on decentralization, so government agencies can’t raid them or force the devs to hand over any user data. The only problem with it is that it isn’t as user-friendly as Signal. 
  • Threema – The app uses end-to-end encryption to secure your texts, photos, and GPS location. Also, it generates as little data as possible on its servers, and it offers a decent level of anonymity by not requiring you to use your phone number (You get a Threema ID instead). The company behind the service is also based in Switzerland, so you get to enjoy privacy-oriented laws too. The only issue is that it doesn’t have a very intuitive onboarding process.

5. Secure All Your Smart Devices

Smart devices are extremely convenient. They give you easy control over your home and entertainment through simple apps, so you get to save a lot of time, and enjoy top-notch comfort too.

However, smart devices have got a huge weakness – government surveillance agencies can use them to spy on you.

The smart TV from Samsung in your living room?

The CIA could force it into a fake Off Mode, have it record your conversations, and then get it to send them to the agency over the web.

Hah, just joking – that’s just a wild speculation.

Unless … it’s actually true, which it seems to be.

The only “good news” is that the CIA hasn’t tried using that method yet. Though, there really is no way to know if they did it or not. It’s not like they’re going to come clean and admit it.

What’s worse, the how-to is available online, so skilled cybercriminals could learn to do that too.

And this is what the powers that be allow the public to know. Who’s to say what other creepy spying techniquest the CIA (or any other surveillance agency from around the world) has.

The best way to protect your smart devices from cybercriminals and surveillance agencies is to change the default usernames and passwords on them and your router. Someone could actually find the default login credentials by simply downloading the router or device’s manual.

Tweaking privacy settings on the smart devices, and adding a VPN to your router are also good ideas.

6. Use Script Blockers on Your Browser

Scripts are commands present in a website’s code that dictate how the platform will react to a website visitor’s actions.

Normally, they’re rather harmless. However, cybercriminals can use malicious scripts to redirect people to phishing pages, or infect their devices with malware.

Also, government agencies have used tracking scripts to monitor certain people’s online actions on multiple occasions.

Sure, these types of surveillance techniques seem to be mostly used against government officials, but how do you know cybercriminals and surveillance agencies aren’t using them to spy on regular people too?

It’s basically just speculation, yes, but – overall – it’s better to be safe than sorry.

So, you should use script blockers like uMatrix and uBlock Origin on your browser. They will prevent harmful or tracking scripts from starting up without your consent.

7. Install the HTTPS Everywhere Extension

HTTPS Everywhere is very useful because it rewrites your connection requests to a website to make sure it uses HTTPS encryption.

After all, not all websites use good configurations or they just don’t enable HTTPS, so they might default to HTTP traffic. What’s worse, 30% of the world’s 560 largest websites don’t use secure HTTPS connections either.

Why is that a problem?

Because HTTP traffic doesn’t really use any encryption, so government surveillance agencies, hackers, and ISPs can freely monitor it. HTTPS, on the other hand, adds a layer of encryption, protecting your privacy.

Still, you should use a VPN alongside HTTPS Everywhere too. Even if a website uses HTTPS, if it doesn’t configure the encryption properly, it can potentially leak data.

8. Use Encrypted Solutions to Secure Your Emails

Email services already secure your messages, so there’s nothing to worry about, right?

Well, not exactly.

For example, Google might offer decent security and privacy with Gmail, but the company is also part of the PRISM surveillance program. That means the NSA has direct access to things like emails, photos, documents, and audio/video files.

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AOL and Yahoo! are part of the same surveillance program, with Yahoo! even going as far as helping the US government spy on emails.

Clearly, you need a better email solution if you really want to learn how to avoid Internet surveillance – ideally one that offers end-to-end encryption and privacy.

Luckily, you’ve got a few options to choose from:

  • ProtonMail – The service doesn’t just use end-to-end encryption to secure your privacy, but it also protects your data with Swiss privacy laws since the company is incorporated in Switzerland, and the servers are located there too. What’s more, ProtonMail doesn’t require any sensitive info from you to create an account. The website doesn’t even keep IP logs. That, and ProtonMail is open-source, has self-destructing messages, and is free to use if you just want a basic account. The only thing you might not like is that you can’t change the default signature on free accounts, but that’s not a huge privacy concern.
  • Tutanota –  A good ProtonMail alternative, Tutanota is open-source, provides top-notch security (AES and RSA encryption), has decent spam filtering, doesn’t log IP addresses (it even strips them from emails), and uses Germany-based physical servers, subjecting user data to privacy-friendly laws. The only drawbacks are the fact that you can’t import your contacts in bulk (so it’s a bit of a hassle to do that), and that some features (like aliases, which are pretty useful) are only available with a paid account.
  • CounterMail – A decent email service that keeps zero IP logs, and offers a strong implementation of OpenPGP encryption. CounterMail even has a built-in password manager, and stores emails on CD-ROMs instead of hard disks, preventing data leaks. However, the service isn’t that user-friendly, only has a one week free trial, and it doesn’t allow you to send encrypted messages to non-CounterMail users.

9. Turn Off Location Services

Location services can be useful if you need to find your phone, find your away around a city you’re visiting, or if you want to get recommendations based on your location (like nearby restaurants).

However, location tracking also makes it easy for big companies (like Google) and surveillance agencies to know where you are at all times.

Even if a government agency couldn’t directly get access to your geodata, they could just force the company handling it to share it with them. Or they (alongside hackers) could just collect the geodata various apps leak.

That’s not just a huge breach of your privacy, but it can also put your freedom at risk. Police officers have previously used location service data to find criminals, only to accidentally arrest innocent people instead.

So, you should definitely go ahead and turn off Location Services on all devices. Here are some guides if you need help:

Please keep in mind that turning off Location Services doesn’t 100% guarantee companies and government agencies can’t continue tracking you. Google, for instance, can still log such info even if the phone or Location Services are off.

Allegedly, switching the phone to Airplane Mode might help, but there’s no data to back that up.

10. Disable or Don’t Accept All Cookies

Cookies are small files websites place on your device when you access them. They normally help websites keep track of your browsing habits – like remembering your login credentials, the contents of your shopping cart, or your favorite web pages.

Unfortunately, the government can also use cookies to keep tabs on online users. The NSA did it once, and so do the EU government and healthcare websites.

So, it’s best to not accept cookies from websites that seem shady. As for legit websites, if you have no choice but to accept cookies, make sure you delete them afterwards.

If you want to really throw the government off your online trail, though, the best thing you can do is get a cheap laptop which you only use to browse sensitive websites and nothing more. It might seem like a bit too much, but it is pretty effective.

11. Don’t Overshare on Social Media

Do you really need to let everyone on social media know when you’re not at home? Or what every step of your next vacation itinerary is?

That’s the kind of information that compromises your online privacy, and makes it much easier for governments, hackers, and ISPs to spy on you.

It’s safer to use social media to stay in touch with friends, and entertain yourself than using it as a public diary.

You never know who’s watching. For example, the US government said it will start creating fake social media profiles to monitor immigrants.

And that’s not all. In the UK, the government actually started hiring data gathering companies to spy on social media feeds.

Maybe you don’t live in those countries, or the “immigrant” situation doesn’t apply to you, but what’s stopping your government from using fake profiles or social media monitoring to spy on you?

Besides limiting the amount of info you share, you should make your social media profiles more private too. You don’t need random strangers on the web seeing what you do or learning personal things about you, after all.

12. Before Uploading Photos, Remove All Metadata

Photo metadata (also known as EXIF metadata) is extra data that offers information about a photo. It can include things like camera settings (focal length, ISO speed, lens type, etc.), the camera model, and the name of any program used to view or edit the photo.

Doesn’t sound too bad, right?

Well, photo metadata can also include GPS coordinates sometimes. That, and the date and time you took the photo.

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So, a government surveillance agency (or anyone, for that matter) could easily find out your specific location and when you were there by just downloading a photo you uploaded.

To remove metadata from a photo, just right-click on it, click on Properties, go to Details, and hit “Remove Properties and Personal Information” at the bottom. For tips on how to do that on other platforms, check out this guide.

You can also try using pixelgarde to remove even more data.

Can You Use Tor to Bypass Internet Surveillance?

Tor brands itself as an anonymity network, and it does offer a decent level of privacy on the web.

But if you really want to learn how to avoid Internet surveillance, you shouldn’t rely on Tor for that. Here’s why:

  • Governments can actually block the Tor network. China and Turkey already did it. What’s more, even ISPs can manage to block Tor connections if they want to.
  • Tor exit relays don’t always use encryption, meaning the owner of the relay and their ISP could be able to see your traffic.
  • To enjoy traffic encryption, you need to use the Tor browser. Use any other device or platform, and your ISP or government might be able to start monitoring your data.
  • Tor connections are not very stable because there are way more users than relays.
  • Tor once had a severe flaw that leaked user IP addresses. The devs patched it, but there’s no saying when another serious issue like that will pop up.

You might get some good results if you use Tor with a VPN, though your speeds might take a hit.

What About Proxies?

Proxies can hide your IP address, that’s true. And some of them offer a certain level of encryption for your traffic.

However, proxy encryption simply isn’t the same as VPN encryption. It’s not as strong, and can’t properly secure your data against government and ISP surveillance.

You’re better off using a proxy server when you want to bypass geo-blocks. To deal with surveillance, you should rely on a VPN.

The Bottom Line

We’d all love the web to be a haven of privacy, but – unfortunately – you can’t have Internet without Internet surveillance. The government, ISPs, and hackers just can’t help themselves – they need to monitor your traffic to make a profit or add your info to a lengthy database.

Luckily, learning how to avoid Internet surveillance isn’t too hard. Just do the following:

  • Use a VPN and reliable antivirus/antimalware software.
  • Use Signal to chat with people.
  • Secure your emails with ProtonMail.
  • Don’t accept all cookies (or any at all).
  • Use extensions like HTTPS Everywhere, uMatrix, and uBlock Origin.
  • Remove all metadata from photos before uploading them.
  • Don’t share too much personal info on social media.
  • Disable Location Services on your devices.
  • Don’t underestimate your device’s webcam and microphone.
  • Secure all the smart devices in your home.
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