Saturday Night Science: Tools for Online Privacy

Spy vs. SpyThis will be a somewhat different installment of Saturday Night Science.  Rather than discussing a book or news related to science and technology, this time, motivated by having recently read and reviewed Edward Snowden’s Permanent Record, I’m going to survey some of the tools individuals can use to attempt to reclaim a bit of their privacy in the face of ubiquitous mass surveillance by governments and technology companies.  This is not intended to be an encyclopedic survey of the field, which is vast, complicated, and constantly changing.  Instead, this is an introduction intended to point readers toward tools and approaches, many of which I have used myself, discuss trade-offs between security and convenience, and provide links for further research.  The various topics are largely independent of one another, and are discussed in no particular order.

Private Web Browsing

At this writing, the most widely used Web browser is Google’s Chrome, with a market share around 65% which is expected to grow to more than 70% by the end of 2019.  Chrome is famous for “phoning home”: every site you visit, link you follow, search you perform, and choice you make from the suggestions it so helpfully provides you is potentially reported back to Google headquarters.   This is stored in a dossier maintained about you, especially if you have, as you’re encouraged to, signed the browser in to your Google Account.  That’s how they manage to show you advertisements so exquisitely (or sometimes humorously) targeted based upon your online activity.  But you don’t have to be paranoid to worry about the consequences of, dare I say, such a permanent record being used against you should you come to the attention of the enforcers of good-think who abound in Silicon Valley.... [Read More]


Privacy and Chromebook: an Oxymoron?

My wife  uses my hand-me-down Macbook Air (mid 2013), which she received when I bought my new(er) Macbook Air in early 2015 (wow, that went fast!). Hers is getting a bit quirky running updated OS, and the trackpad has been erratic responding to clicks since forever. So, we are near the point that a new laptop will be needed. She uses it exclusively for web browsing – no word processing or spreadsheet or anything. Maybe stores some photos downloaded from her cell phone. Hasn’t used even half the 120GB flash storage.

Being my frugal self, I can’t see spending $1000 (plus the 7% Commonwealth of PA extortion for the privilege of purchasing it online from another state/country) for a new one – 90% of the use is for online solitaire or jigsaw puzzles, with the occasional email or web search. So, I investigated Chromebooks, and found a reconditioned Acer Chromebook 14 with 32GMB flash storage, 4GB RAM, and a 14 inch full HD 1080 IPS screen for $155 shipping included! It arrived and I have been exploring it now for about a week.... [Read More]