Confidentiality & Privacy Apps

On April 4, 2017 President Trump signed S.J. Res 34 stopping a regulation that would have protected our internet activities from being logged and sold by our Internet Service Providers (ISPs). It might be time to buy some online privacy.

Another way to think about this is that perhaps you want to discuss a legal matter with a client while traveling, and you need the use the WiFi at an airport or coffee shop that is open or only has one password for all users. Trying to maintain confidentiality on such unsecure WiFi might not be wise because your ISP logging and selling your data would be the least of your worries. Every other user of that network can install a simple browser extension to monitor everything that you do—even a 7 year old can hack these networks. While the Supreme Court has said that smartphones can hold “[t]he sum of an individual’s private life” in Riley v. California, that was about protecting all the data on a smartphone from a warrant-less police search. Slightly more analogous to sending your data over unsecure WiFi might be when the 6th Circuit discussed the danger of failing to take “simple precautions” to maintain a reasonable expectation of privacy when using “a device that is capable of inadvertently exposing…conversations to third-party listeners” in Huff v. Spaw. It might be time to buy some online privacy.

What To Do?

Get a Virtual Private Network (VPN). You might think of VPNs as what you use to access work’s electronic resources from home. They can provide an encrypted connection from your device to a private network from which you access with the internet. This way your ISP and any users on an unsecure network can only see that you are communicating with the VPN and not what sites you are visiting, apps you are using, or any of the data being exchanged. Internet Technology savvy folks can set up a VPN for themselves, but for the rest of us we make the decision to transfer our trust from the ISPs (who make money by selling our data) to VPN vendors (who make money from protecting our date private).

I wanted a VPN, so I looked at reviews by authoritative sources, read a bit more to get advice on how to evaluate VPNs for myself, and ended up selecting two services that had been recommended: Disconnect and TunnelBear. I paid for the upgraded version of Disconnect (and because I use an iPhone I paid the cheaper price through the App Store). As well as its VPN, Disconnect blocks ads that track you, which they say can make internet access slightly faster as you skip downloading the ads. TunnelBear provides free use of its VPN for the first 500 MB per month, and a free option to maintain privacy on the occasional unsecure WiFi connection sounded great to be able to recommend to friends who didn’t want to use a pay service. Disconnect consumed slightly less power and provides the ad blocker, but TunnelBear’s slightly increased power consumption may have come from me overusing its beautiful graphic user interface where the animated bear digs a tunnel to connect to the various VPNs around the world—and a great user interface seems worth the bit more power it consumed on the first day when I treated the app like a game and sent the bear around the world to growl back confirmation when it connected.

If you want more options, this article is a great place to suggest VPNs vendors and begin to evaluate VPN vendors for yourself.

What if You Want More Privacy?

A VPN maintains your privacy from an ISP and a casual hacker who monitors information sent across an unsecure network, but it doesn’t protect you well from someone focused on extracting information from your online activities in particular. A VPN might be like closing a door; it makes it slightly inconvenient for another person to access a room because they would need to open the door first. For more privacy protection you could consider looking into Tor. Tor will maintain your privacy not just from your ISP and the casual hacker on an unsecure network, but also from the provider of your VPN. Tor is also the start of maintaining privacy from someone focused on extracting information from your online activities in particular. To continue the metaphor, if the VPN is the closed door, then Tor is the lock that a reasonably prudent person might choose to keep the door closed.

About Robert O'Leary

Robert O'Leary
Robert O’Leary is a Reference Librarian and Adjunct Professor of Law at the California Western School of Law Library in San Diego, California. He teaches Advanced Legal Research, coordinates the library’s instance of LibGuides, and occasionally feels frustrated trying to keep up with how the internet affects information. You can follow him on Twitter @roberteoleary.

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