How to Protect (Some of) Your Personal Data in 10 Not-So-Easy Steps

Thursday, February 27, 2014

computer security surveillance lock data (Copyright: Maksim Kabakou/Shutterstock)

The government, private companies, and even criminals use technology to indiscriminately sweep up vast amounts of our personal data. Investigative journalist Julia Angwin found out just how difficult it is for the average citizen to avoid America's surveillance economy when she started trying to limit how much data she was generating. 

Here are some of the changes she made:

Angwin closed her LinkedIn account and unfriended all her Facebook friends. "My big problem with LinkedIn and Facebook is that it exposes your list of friends. Your associations…are exposed. People can see them, they can go on and look at who your friends, and if you have mutual friends, they can see that. And I didn’t think that was something I wanted to share." She kept her Twitter account "because it’s basically a broadcast medium. It doesn’t have any illusion of privacy."

She also notes that: "The more that you’re logged into services that know who you are, like Gmail or Facebook, then, when you’re on other websites, they often can see that you’re there. And so you’re not anonymous. They know individually that you’re there."

Because Google – and most other search engines – keep the data created by every search you do, Angwin switched search engines, but says it took her about a month to adapt to not using Google. She turned to a site called DuckDuckGo, which doesn’t keep track. She says, "It’s old-school."

She started taking other precautions like covering the webcam on her laptop, shredding documents, and using a password manager. She even bought a special metal-lined wallet that protected her credit cards from a possible nearby hackers.

Though she couldn’t find a good way to protect information about her financial purchases, Angwin did ask her credit card company to issue her a new card on her existing account with a different name: Ida Tarbell, the turn-of-the-century investigative journalist. She’s been using it for a year and no one’s caught the historical reference.

"The cell phone was the hardest challenge for me because basically, it’s transmitting all the time – it has to be in order to do its job."Angwin explains, "I decided to turn off WiFi, because it’s very easy for companies to notice the WiFi signal on your phone and track you." She has another phone that’s in Ida Tarbell’s name, which she uses for more sensitive calls. "Although obviously now that I’ve told the world, I’m going to have to get a new phone." She also uses a special case called a Faraday Cage that is supposed to block a cell phone’s signal.

Protecting your data can be expensive. Angwin says that she spent almost $2,000 on her project. But there are some free resources out there, including the ad-blocking technology that she used and the search engine DuckDuckGo.

Julia Angwin's book is called Dragnet Nation: A Quest for Privacy, Security, and Freedom in a World of Relentless Surveillance.


Julia Angwin

Comments [14]

tom LI

To Joe Mirsky - really Joe, you really believe the story that it was ONLY the numbers collected and not the content? Why would you believe the very agency, the very people who have been lying to us all the time?

Maybe a more psychology diagnosis savvy listener can name your affliction. It involves actually believing the people who lied to you, more so when they tell you what they didn't do, were not doing when they lied to you first time...and so on, and so on...a never ending "buying" of the lie about the previous lie. There must be a name for this affliction besides Gullible. lol!

Feb. 27 2014 04:17 PM
foodaggro from Brooklyn

But I don't WANNA hold "virtual hands" with you ...

Feb. 27 2014 01:59 PM

Anybody can make a Faraday Cage for a cell phone or credit cards simply by wrapping the device in aluminum foil. You can test it easily. With another phone, call yours. Then wrap it up and try calling it again.

Feb. 27 2014 01:49 PM
rz from Hamilton Heights

it is a lot of work to listen to all those phones calls. that's why speech to text technologies would come in. siri can do it.

Feb. 27 2014 01:48 PM

Top 10 NSA Pickup lines.

Feb. 27 2014 01:44 PM
Lizzy from NYC

Ok, WNYC-- explain why you have on the same guest repeatedly. This woman was already on Terri Gross, like two days ago. We are all probably listening all day/all week and especially the most popular shows like Lenny and Terri, and I really don't want to hear an interview twice-- even from two of the great radio journalists. ESPECIALLY during the pledge drive week-- we are already fatigued by THAT-- give us something good!

Feb. 27 2014 01:43 PM
jgarbuz from Queens

Governments were opening up people's mail centuries ago. For as long as there have been governments and communications between people, there have been spies for the regime reporting on what is being said amongst the people.

Feb. 27 2014 01:37 PM
foodaggro from Brooklyn

This chick pledge tag-teaming with Leonard is so irritating. Get her off the air!

Feb. 27 2014 01:30 PM
jgarbuz from Queens

When I was a little kid I was a little Red. Back in the '50s I read parts of Das Kapital and other Marxist nonsense. Today I have no idea why that stuff fascinated me at the time, perhaps they were so officially taboo. The FBI was a still very respected and highly touted institution at that time, and I was actually afraid of them coming in and taking me away for reading that stuff. So this business of fear of being accused of being a commie or nowadays being a jihadist is hardly new.

Feb. 27 2014 01:21 PM

Jacob Appelbaum is probably one of the leading figures in the world on the many, many ways the US government (and others) are spying on us:

Jameel Jaffer has been on The Lopate Show discussing the legal efforts to rein in Obama administration and NSA abuses. Not long after Jaffer was on the show, the court in the case that he had just argued ruled against ACLU.

Economist Samuel Bowles and others have found that "guard labor" (work dedicated to 'security') is one of the fastest, if not the fastest, area of employment.

Feb. 27 2014 01:18 PM

Every John LeCarré novel is about meta-data....Not what you said or who you were with but who you *might* have been with and what you *might* have done...

Some day, someone is going to be on the wrong end of a drone strike due to meta-data analysis and then it won't seem so funny any more.

Feb. 27 2014 01:17 PM
Joe Mirsky from Pompton Lakes, NJ

Big Brother

“If you want to keep a secret, you must also hide it from yourself.”
— George Orwell, 1984.

The leak about the NSA collecting metadata (who you called, not what you said) about your phone calls and e-mails has caused a spike in sales of 1984, George Orwell’s 1949 dystopian novel of an all-controlling government where Big Brother knows everything you do, say, and think.

A June, 2013 Rasmussen poll found that 68% of people believe that the government is listening to their phone calls.

Big Brother knows you bought 1984, too.

Feb. 27 2014 01:10 PM
John A

Misha - tech is just a brutal business. Look what it cost Miles O'Brien.

Feb. 27 2014 01:03 PM
Misha from East Village

Kind of an unmotivating juxtaposition for the final pledge pitch, the most annoying voice on WNYC with one of the greats. Can anyone at WNYC gently suggest to Manoush Zomorodi to scoot back from the microphone, or at least watch a few SNL Delicious Dish episodes for some basic training?

And also, maybe a re-visioning of New Tech City? Some of the most empty and surficial journalism out there. It's surprising and frustrating that the show still serves as the "tech" show on wnyc, apparently there's a void and high demand for a good tech reporting program/podcast.

Feb. 27 2014 12:49 PM

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