You don't need to worry about online privacy unless you have something to hide, right?
That old adage just doesn't ring true in an age where intelligence agencies consider anyone within three "hops" of their surveillance targets fair game for scrutiny. Consider this: The average Facebook user, with just 190 friends, has over five million people in their extended network with just those third-degree connections (friends of friends of friends).
It's not just the government watching your every move, either. Advertisers, social networks, and even email companies collect a huge amount of user data.
Online privacy is a concern for every internet user and no one understands this better than Edward Snowden.
The former NSA contractor-turned-whistleblower now speaks out regularly on privacy issues and has shared some fantastic tips for internet users over the last year. Here are a few of his greatest online privacy tips.
1. Avoid popular online consumer services like Google, Facebook, and Dropbox.
If you'd rather spend a week without food than a day without Facebook, you're not alone. However, in an October video interview for The New Yorker Festival, Snowden listed Facebook and Google as "dangerous services" users should avoid to protect their online privacy.
Google and Facebook have each had their share of privacy scandals over the years and have taken steps to improve, he noted. It's not enough, though. Their data protection and privacy controls still aren't up to snuff, according to Snowden.
Another major offender? Dropbox, an online storage solution Snowden skewered for its lack of local encryption. Instead, he recommends services like SpiderOak, whose local encryption means the server never even knows the plaintext contents of the data it's storing.
2. Encrypt your hard drive.
You might already use password protection on your files, but that's just the first step in protecting the contents of your hard drive.
At SXSW 2014 in Austin last March, Snowden again spoke via videoconference about online privacy and personal data security. Encryption, he said, is the "defense against the dark arts" for the digital world.
Encrypting your entire hard drive offers protection in case your computer is ever lost or stolen (or seized). You don't have to be a techy to do it.
Some newer operating systems have built-in disk encryption tools such as BitLocker, which is standard with Windows 7 Ultimate and Enterprise, as well as 8.1 Pro and Enterprise. OS X users can use the built-in FileVault 2 encryption tool, while Linux users can opt for a distribution like Ubuntu, with a built-in Linux Unified Key Setup (LUKS).
A decent external solution is Symantec's Endpoint Encryption, which also offers data loss protection and will run you around $111 per year. It also protects your removable media.
3. Avoid online tracking with browser plug-ins.
Advertisers and brands collect an incredible amount of user data, in order to personalize shopping experiences and better target audiences with ads.
Even if you appreciate the customized shopping experience inherent to this retailer data collection, you have to remember that others can probably see your activity, too.
Browsers like Chrome and Internet Explorer 10 now offer do-not-track settings, but adding a browser plug-in adds an extra layer of protection and anonymity.
Ghostery is one of the more popular options and is available for Chrome, Opera, Firefox, Safari, and mobile systems Android, iOS and Firefox Android. It will show you the number of trackers detected and give you the option to block them en masse.
4. Encrypt online communications in chat and email.
Protect your online communications and even your phone calls with encryption services.
Silent Circle bills itself as "the world's solution to mobile privacy" and was designed to protect mobile users from widespread data collection. They offer a variety of voice, text, video, and file transfer encryption packages for individuals and business users.
For online chatting, try a service like ChatCrypt, which encrypts messages before they leave the browser, making them visible only to the opposite end user with the password.
5. Use Tor for online browsing.
Once the gold standard for anonymous online browsing, Tor's reputation was tarnished this past summer when its creators were forced to admit it wasn't impenetrable.
Tor stands for 'The Onion Router' and was so named because of its multiple layers of security. Basically, it bounces your communications around a network of relays, making it difficult (if not impossible) for anyone to track your online activity. The websites you visit aren't able to collect data that would expose your physical location, for example, and you can access content that might otherwise be unavailable to people in your region.
The creators of Tor readily admit, "Tor can't solve all anonymity problems; it focuses only on protecting the transport of data." Still, it's a useful open-source tool for those concerned about their privacy.
We all have something to hide--maybe not from law enforcement, but from advertisers, hackers, bots and even your favorite friendly retailers. The key to protecting your online privacy isn't discovering one magic bullet tool, but a combination of online privacy tools that suit your online habits.