Tim Berners-Lee, the man generally created with inventing the internet, thinks access to his creation should be a basic human right. What does he mean by this? Specifically, that everyone should have affordable access with no commercial or political interference, surveillance, censorship, or other forms of information manipulation by governments or large corporate entities (not to name names but Facebook and Google).
Unfortunately, we’re not even close to that ideal and it seems to be drifting farther away all the time. Bulk mass surveillance continues to climb, as does the number of countries engaging in moderate to extensive censorship. What’s an average internet user to do? The bottom line – trust nothing. Keep reading.
The Damage Done by Solitary Hackers, Corporations, and Big Government
If all an internet user had to worry about was the spectre of a solitary hacker sitting in his parents’ basement in soiled pajamas and binging on Cheetos, well, we could deal with it. Annoying, but we could deal with it. Luckily, there are certain proactive and reactive measures one can take in response to these kind of simple hacks targeting your personal or financial information.
Not to dismiss the seriousness of the issue, but the widespread information manipulation campaigns undertaken by larger organizations pose a more dangerous threat to that big ‘ol society we call humanity. Let’s take a closer look at how the bad guys operate.
Censorship: Who would have thunk it, but censorship is alive and well in the Information Age. In the beginning, it was all puppies and kittens and flowers. This new thing called the internet was going to be the great equalizer in lending a voice to the individual. Turns out, not so much. Governments around the world were early adopters of the technology and have managed to stay one step ahead of the independent media by inventing new means to curtail, obfuscate, and overcome strident voices of truth as fast as they appear.
Autocratic regimes like those found in China, Russia, North Korea, and Iran have set a high bar when it comes to ruthlessly redacting news before it is disseminated to the public and have made a strong state-controlled media a high priority. It didn’t take long for weak-sister countries like Hungary, Turkey, Ecuador, Venezuela and dozens of others to learn from their more powerful brethren. The idea of an open, accessible, unfiltered internet is a reality only in mature democracies and, even then, it’s a dicey proposition.
Cyber-Warfare by Her Majesty’s Secret Service and others: Obviously, we’re not going to lay the blame for all global disinformation at James Bond’s feet. The same stuff goes on in a variety of nations. It just happens that some of the specific techniques used by the United Kingdom to manipulate information came to light as part of ex-CIA employee Edward Snowden’s leaks. Some of the more effective tactics include:
- Injecting false information online in order to destroy a target’s reputation and manipulate conversations
- Pretending to be the target’s victim and filling forums with false claims of damage
- Manipulating journalists without their knowledge
- Hiring trolls to post pro-government opinions online
- Manipulating social media platforms like Facebook through data collection, content creation, and amplification of false narratives
Once again, we’re not blaming our buddies in the UK entirely. There are other examples like the fallout from alleged Russian Facebook shenanigans related to the 2016 US presidential race that is still under investigation.
Fighting the Tsunami of False Narratives
The question then becomes, is there any way to safely use the internet in this increasingly oppressive climate or should we just retreat under the nearest rock to live out the rest of our days? The answer depends on whether we’re talking about censorship or privacy intrusion. In the case of censorship by dictatorial governments, there is little an individual can do without risking prison or death.
If it’s important that you are in possession of all the facts and then sort out for yourself what to think, it’s a bad idea to live in the the repressive regimes that can be found around the world. Solution? Move, if you can, which is a task often easier said than done but might be worth the effort if you were born into a nation that doesn’t hesitate to crush free speech.
Privacy invasion is a different story. There are less drastic actions you can take to combat that. Let’s break these actions down into two categories.
Surf Like You Have a Brain: So many of today’s personal and financial information thefts are not as a result of a brute force technology attack but rather a user being tricked into freely letting the bad actor into his system. That’s the basis of super-popular and super-effective tactics like phishing and spear phishing. Our advice here is boring but effective:
Create good passwords and change them regularly
* Be highly suspicious of all email links
* In fact, be highly suspicious of all emails, even if they appear to come from trusted sources
* Accept the fact that you don’t have a wealthy benefactor in Nigeria
Stiffen Up the Hardware and Software: The second part of this privacy invasion equation is to toughen up your system. Install a serious security software suite that includes a solid firewall, malware detection, and regular scans and backups. Additionally, one of the single biggest security measures you can take for internet privacy in Australia is to always access the the web through a Virtual Private Network (VPN).
For those who aren’t sure exactly what this is, think of it as a supercharged hosting package that not only protects your computer’s IP address but encrypts all data traveling between the server and you. For a surprisingly modest monthly fee (usually $5 – $15) you gain an enormous amount of security and privacy.
The Bottom Line
Understand this. Your personal, demographic, and financial data is valuable. Corporate social media monoliths like Facebook can’t seem to stay out of hot water for misusing user data for one reason or another, and even the most forward-thinking of governments can’t help dabbling in the business of crushing dissent and/or molding public opinion by withholding information or dispensing outright fabrications.
Does an average citizen stand a chance against against all this manipulation and oppression? Probably not, but putting the preceding suggestions into play might give you a fighting chance. At least you can go down with a fight.