In light of the recent Facebook privacy settings drama, I thought that this would be a good time to evaluate what control you (or others) have on your online presence. Our very own intern Matthew put together a toolbox of “Circumvention Tools”. Tools for handling online privacy, censorship and getting around online road blocks.
By nature, this can be a sketchy area, so know that none of these tools are perfect by any means when looking at how to address these issues. And just because they’re listed here doesn’t mean we endorse or have tried them, we just want to let folks know what’s available. Security needs vary organization to organization and individual to individual, so we encourage you to vet circumvention and security tools thoroughly before depending on them in any way.
That being said, these are very real problems that a nonprofit or an individual can find themselves having to deal with and there are many reasons why you should at least know what’s up. First of all, anyone can see and track what you’re looking at online. Internet providers, websites, blogs (boo!) can track what you’re looking at. Because every computer is tied to a specific IP address, it’s actually fairly easy for someone to do. Secondly, for some organizations, like Google, it’s a large part of their business model. They track what you search for and look at to give you more relevant search results.
But it’s one thing to track what someone is doing online and a whole other to take action against them based on what they’re doing. Controversial nonprofits and organizations have a legitimate security issue to consider when looking at how they leave a footprint online. For example, if your organization works for freeing political prisoners and your IP address is tracked to a website categorized by the government as “terrorist” don’t think that nothing will happen. While this might sound conspiracy-theory-esque, I just want to use an extreme example to illustrate the point that there can be real dangers when people follow you online and more importantly when you don’t know about it or what you can do. Direct action organizations, protest groups and people advocating for a controversial cause need to know that (just like everyone else), their wanderings and actions online are there for anyone to see.
Tracking where someone goes online isn’t the only way that you can be taken advantage of online. Anyone who followed the protests in Iran over the presidential elections knew that Twitter and YouTube were far richer in content for real-time news than traditional news media. The fact that a government can choose to block sites like this effectively cuts off the vocal cords of a group of people while at the same time stopping others outside of the situation from knowing what is going on. While this also might seem like an extreme example, simply the fact that this is possible must leave you wondering what’s up and what you can do about it.
Luckily, there are tools out there that can help you out. Some tools like Freegate, Gpass and Your Freedom work against these kinds of censorship measures to allow people access to sites they wouldn’t be able to view otherwise. While tools like Tor and UltraSurf work to hide your IP address so your actions are lost in the intertubes. And again, remember that these tools are not perfect. In many ways it’s like an arms race between the tools that work for you and the tools that work against you. It’s only a matter of time before one catches up with the other.
Now that I’ve got you a little paranoid, I say go and check out a few of these tools and see what you think. If all of these online privacy and censorship issues make you a little uncomfortable (as it should!), know that it’s a real issue and that your privacy, identity and access to content online are hot commodities.
What issues have you seen come into play around these issues?
What do you do to protect your control over your online presence?
What tools are missing from the toolbox?
Your paranoid toolbox-er,