With all the talk lately about Facebook's flawed privacy systems, it's a good time to consider what you're making available elsewhere on the web and on your system. These settings tweaks and setups make your web life a little less public.
Photo by Jorge Franganillo.
Skip Incognito/Private Browsing and Really Leave No Trace
Private browsing modes might prevent your coworkers or roommates from seeing where you wander on the web, but you still leave plenty of traces for someone who knows where to look. Take the How-To Geek's advice and really browse without leaving a trace. Wipe away Flash cookies, clean out DNS caches, and automate your system so every boot-up is a fresh start.
Pick Better Security Questions
Some security questions and password recovery schemes offered by webapps are so bad, anyone with your casual acquaintance and a small amount of Google savvy could poke into your email whenever they felt like it. To get around weak security questions, use blogger danah boyd's security question algorithm. Instead of straight-up providing your mother's maiden name, use a scheme, such as "[Snarky Bad Attitude Phrase]+ [Core Noun Phrase]+ [Unique Word] ," so that your answer becomes "StupidQuestion MiddleName Booyah," substituting "MiddleName" for the actual answer. If you're lucky enough to be able to choose your own security questions, Lifehacker reader James has written about the best kinds of questions at his blog. (Original post).
Set Up BitTorrent for Private Downloading
BitTorrent is a public commons of file sharing, and that means that all kinds of folks interested in, say, what your home IP address is, and what you're downloading, can dig into it. With both a proxy and settings in your favourite torrent app, you can protect your privacy when downloading. Nothing's foolproof, but a few checkboxes and a different downloading path can do a lot to give you great peace of mind.
Know Your Google Settings
If you're anything like us, or most of our readers, you've got a lot of your life floating around in Google's cloud-based apps. It pays, then, to know how to set what Google shares publicly about you, how much of your search history is being saved, and how to back up your data so you've always got your own copy. These are among the 10 Google settings you should know about that centre on privacy and data retention, though it's always a good idea to know the parameters of the spaces you share your data in.
Know How to Travel Without Being Spied On
Just because some countries have widespread net access doesn't mean it's an open and private web. It's often meant to deter dissidents in strong-handed regimes, but why take the chance of letting your web data fall into the wrong hands? One Lifehacker reader, wishing to remain anonymous and in a non-specific region, crafted a survival guide for travelling where privacy isn't respected. Using secure Gmail, carrying two cloned USB sticks, relying on KeePass and TrueCrypt for passwords and encryption, and knowing how to send data over the web without having it looked at are all good skills to have, both for travelling and in general. Image a composite of photos by hemmob and nolifebeforecofee
Know Where You Stand With Facebook at a Glance
Facebook has promised "simplistic" privacy settings coming soon, but in the meantime, knowing exactly what you've offered to share or keep private is far from transparent. One very crafty hacker at ReclaimPrivacy has put together a settings-scanning bookmarklet that shows what you're sharing beyond your social circle, and offers links and automatic fixes for those settings. Another coder, Ka-Ping Yee, offers a site that shows what the public web can see on Facebook, some of which you can then remove. They're both excellent eye-openers, both for your own account and for friends who refuse to consider what's being shown out there. (Original posts: ReclaimPrivacy bookmarklet, Facebook public).
Run Your Browser Through a Proxy
It's not something you'll want to do all the time, but once in a while, you might want to hide your online tracks. To do so, you can use the go-to web randomisation tool, TOR, which has tools available for nearly every OS and browser. For a DIY solution that can work from any browser, we've detailed installing the free PHProxy tool on your home computer or hosted web space to get around restrictions and slightly disguise your tracks. You could also run a proxy through Google's App Engine, and go the full-tilt geek route of encrypting your browsing with an SSH SOCKS proxy. Any way you choose, it's a smart skill to have handy for dodgy connections and restrictive networks.
Stay Available on Facebook Without Really Being In It
You might have considered quitting Facebook, but stopped short because it's how a few far-flung friends and relatives stay in touch, or a place those without your email address can ping you. We can understand, and, luckily, have a halfway solution to recommend. Quit Facebook without really quitting, as Whitson did. Create a new account, linked to a different email, and set it up so that your old friends are still there, but Facebook, even at its most Draconian, can't really reveal all that much about you, and your friends can't really overshare without your permission.
What steps have you taken recently to bolster your own web or desktop privacy? What would you like to fix, but need some pointers on doing so? Let's hash it all out in the comments.