Data Detox & Cyber Security

Some Nostalgia

(Feel free to skip ahead if you’re just looking for tools.)

I remember getting Facebook in high school when someone you knew had to invite you to join based on being in the same school. It was kind of fun. We would post statuses that we thought were witty and “poke” each other. Although, honestly I look back with a lot more nostalgia on MSN messenger and those little bouncy smiley faces that probably started my enduring love for emojis.

I remember getting off Facebook in my first year of university, after someone I knew from UWC posted something incredibly misogynistic. It was the last straw for me. I’d also recently had a lengthy fight with a friend-of-a-friend about the ongoing student strike in Quebec and I’d had enough. The freedom from Facebook’s grasp was glorious and heady.

So I was very detached from social media from 2011 until 2015 when I got a job coordinating the social media for Canada’s largest legal charity. My mom laughed so hard when I told her I got that job. But using social media professionally on behalf of an organization is different than using it personally, and I understood the principles behind it well enough to do a good job in that position.

During my time in that role I also watched Citizenfour (2014), and spent a fair amount of time thinking about our privacy and consent policies for how we used supporters’ data. Those experiences prompted me to think about cybersecurity and big data in news ways. While those hadn’t been the reasons I left social media, they were what encouraged me to stay off it.

However, when I went on a two month trip in Europe last summer to meet a bunch of my distant relatives, I got back onto Facebook more actively to share pictures with my family here in Canada. But those doubts and concerns about cybersecurity haven’t left me, and I’ve done quite a bit of work to improve the ways I care for my data. I wanted to share some tools with you that I have found make it easy for me to feel more confident in what I put online and where it is going.

Data Detox

First, whether cybersecurity is a new consideration for you or you’re old hat at this but enjoy a thorough review periodically, I’d highly recommend starting by following this eight-day Data Detox plan.

It gives you about 20-30 minutes of exercises to do each day for a week. They range from thoroughly searching for yourself online (including photos) to finding out how much information Google has stored about you (it’s terrifying) to investigating what data the apps on your phone are collecting (more than you’d like, probably) to cleaning up your social media accounts. Each day provides some background information, simple tasks to do, and easy solutions to implement in an ongoing way. And although it’s designed to be done over a week, if you’re like me and you like diving in whole-hog, you can also do the whole thing in an afternoon if you set aside 2-3 hours.

Cybersecurity Workshops & Tools

After doing that Data Detox I was really stoked. I wanted to share it with everyone I know. Both for their own sake, but also because our data is very interrelated with the people we spend time with online. So when a new Spartacus collective member suggested that we run a series of workshops on cybersecurity, I was immediately in! We ran five workshops on the theme “Don’t Get Hacked”: Why Security Matters; Passwords, Apps, and Plug-ins; Social Media; Encryption & VPNs; and Security for Activists. The workshops had small but engaged attendance and were very focused on practical tips. Some of my favourites that I’ve implemented are:

  • Signing up for the LastPass password manager. This has meant that I can use longer, unique passphrases for my accounts, without worrying about forgetting them all.
  • Switching from Google to DuckDuckGo as my search engine of choice. Unlike Google, DuckDuckGo doesn’t track my searches or store them, won’t collect my personal information, and never sells my data to advertisers so they can track me around the internet. Plus, the search results have been great quality.
  • Installing the Signal messenger app on my phone, and making it my default messenger application. In a nutshell: “Signal messages and calls are always end-to-end encrypted and painstakingly engineered to keep your communication safe. We can’t read your messages or see your calls, and no one else can either.” That seems pretty dreamy to me!
  • Adding the Privacy Badger extension to my browser, which “stops advertisers and other third-party trackers from secretly tracking where you go and what pages you look at on the web.” Privacy Badger fulfills the functions of an ad blocker, and was created by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which does lots of great work in the cybersecurity realm.
    • A side note on this–some folks I know really enjoy the AdNauseum or TrackMeNot approach, which along with blocking ads “clicks” on all of them in the background to confuse Google and advertisers as to your actual interests. I can see the gleeful delight of this, but knowing that those ad clicks translate into money for those companies, even if it’s not me spending it, gets on my nerves so I don’t bother. I’d be interested to hear if others have thoughtful arguments for or against those tools.

There are a lot more things I use now and things I’ve tried and discarded, but honestly, most of them are captured in the Data Detox kit, so I’d highly recommend checking it out.

Final Thoughts

Cybersecurity can seem daunting, but honestly, for me I’ve found that once I started with a few things it has had a slow snowball effect that over time has helped me feel more confident and knowledgeable about the topic. I’m still no expert, but every few months I’ll come across a new tip or idea and give it a try, slowly building up my repertoire. Hopefully with the ideas I’ve shared here, you can do the same if you aren’t already!

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