It’s tin-foil hat time here at Overclocked. Over the past week there has been no shortage of scary stories about personal data being used and abused online. Whether you’re following Facebook’s response to GDPR, the never-ending news about Cambridge Analytica, or the new lawsuits in the US accusing the Republicans of hacking the Democrats email servers, it can all be a little scary.
However, no tin-hat is going to protect your data online. So, I spend part of last week looking for apps that don’t want to track me. Here’s a brief rundown of some of the apps you should have on your phone if you’re worried about who sees your data.
Duck Duck Go
This search engine has been gaining ground with users for a couple of years, but the Cambridge Analytica data scandal has sent the company’s marketing team and CEO Gabriel Weinberg into overdrive. Despite the media hype, Duck Duck Go is designed to be an alternative to Google, not Facebook.
Just like Google, Duck Duck Go is available on the web and for iOS and Android. It offers the same multi-tab web browsing environment that you’d expect, although the company doesn’t have some of the extras that Google offers, like Maps. It just searches the web, news, images and video.
More importantly, this search engine doesn’t save your data, which means they’re also not selling it to any advertisers. There is a downside to that. Duck Duck Go can’t offer you the highly customised search results that Google does. Of course, maybe that’s an upside too.
The app’s best feature is the “burn” icon. Tap it, and Duck Duck Go closes all tabs and dumps any data it has in memory (aka cookies).
Old spy movies used to feature messages that self-destructed. Snapchat famously brought the concept into the digital mainstream. ProtonMail not only makes your email self-destruct, it also gives it password protection. If you do want to store the email, it’s kept on a server in Switzerland. How’s that for security?
Why Switzerland? ProtonMail was designed by the people at CERN, the same people who brought you the World Wide Web and the Large Hadron Collider, which they use to, among other things, smash protons. Get it?
The down side to this is that much of ProtonMail security features only works if you’re using and send to a @protonmail.com email address.
Email is old school. What about messaging? WhatsApp has risen to become one of the top providers of end-to-end encryption for text messaging, and it does this be using the Signal Protocol.
But Signal is also an App, and unlike WhatsApp, it doesn’t save any data it doesn’t have to. Lose your phone, and you won’t be able to get your messages back. That makes Signal ideal for the truly paranoid.
So why isn’t everyone using Signal? Simply put, because everyone is already on WhatsApp and most people are happy with what they have. But if the fact that Facebook owns WhatsApp still makes you a little nervous, it’s an option you can consider.
I had a long think about whether to include VPNs in this list. While virtual private networks were originally promoted as a way to protect your data in transit (over Wi-Fi, 3G, etc.), most people now just use them to break through their ISP’s proxy filters. However, if you just went out and bought the cheapest VPN service available without knowing how it actually works, your data would be better off without it.
VPNs only encrypt your data between two points, which is usually your computer or smartphone on one end and another computer on the other. Once your data gets to that second computer, it’s no longer encrypted, which means it can then be tracked. Sadly, some VPN providers may have done just that. At least one company, Hotspot Shield, one of the biggest VPN providers, is being investigated in the US by the Federal Trade Commission for “interfering with web traffic and redirecting it to partner websites like advertising companies,” according to CNET.com.
In other words, if you’re worried about data security, VPNs aren’t your first option. The best solution to avoid this is to use an app that has end-to-end encryption build. Then you won’t have to worry about what’s happening to your data once it leaves the VPN.