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

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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 She’s been using it for a year and no one’s caught the historical reference.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.