Internet surveillance and how to keep your activity private

Updated on: 4 July 2019
Updated on: 4 July 2019

Internet surveillance is the act of monitoring the activity of a person whilst they use the internet. Some forms of internet surveillance are illegal and most others questionable, but many are legal and performed by governments, ISPs, and even internet services.

Surveillance offers government agencies the ability to gain a deep understanding of a target. This can often be to prevent terrorism or other serious crime, but more and more we are seeing surveillance as a matter of course, and people are becoming so used to it that many don’t even care.

It also allows companies such as Google and Facebook to sell targeted advertising based on a user’s interests, habits, and personal information.

Let’s take a look at some of the organisations that perform internet surveillance, their methods, and some steps you can take to minimise the amount of data that can be collected about you.

1. Who can monitor your online activity?

The government has access to a lot of sources

Ever since the Edward Snowden revelations of 2013, in which he leaked details of the massive, ongoing, surveillance activities of both US and foreign government agencies, the general public have been aware of just how much data these agencies hold and store about us.

The government has, however, done an incredible job in minimizing fallout. People seem to have gotten used to the fact that nothing they do online is ever truly private.

It’s almost as though the gradual erosion of privacy has indeed led us to being apathetic towards ever increasing invasions into our personal lives. The fact that there hasn’t been any real protest against the proposed porn-block in the UK is evidence of this.

The trouble is, we simply don’t know the extent to which government agencies in the US, UK, Canada, etc. can monitor individuals, but it’s safe to say that if we did know, we’d be very concerned.

We just have to look at examples we’ve known about for a few years already.

In 2014 we were told that the NSA and GCHQ could map every single internet connected device on the planet. That’s right, they know the precise physical location of, along with the personal data connected to, every laptop, desktop, mobile phone, etc. on the planet all the time.

Thanks to Snowden, we also know that the NSA has been able to spy on Skype calls for over a decade.

So yeah, governments have incredible surveillance capabilities, and they’re showing no signs of slowing down their assault on privacy.

ISP tracking

Your internet service provider can monitor a lot of your online activity if it wants to, and probably often does.

ISPs record information about which websites you visit, which links you click, and even data you send to websites that aren’t secured by HTTPS.

They do this in order to sell your personal data to advertisers, work with intelligence agencies, and monitor which services you use. Many ISPs, for example, want to keep track of which users are downloading or sharing torrents via P2P networks, and will often throttle the bandwidth of users it thinks are doing so.

To largely protect yourself from ISP monitoring, use a VPN to encrypt all your data so they cannot see the contents of any of your online activities. This will stop them from seeing which websites you access too.

ISPs will still be able to see if you’re sending or receiving data through P2P networks (torrents), but some VPN services, such as NordVPN, provide obfuscated servers that hide the type of data being transmitted. See our NordVPN review for more information.

Google tracks you across the internet

If, like billions of people around the world, you’re a regular user of the vast array of Google services, then you might be shocked at just how much information about you the company stores.

Every video you’ve ever watched on YouTube, every page you’ve ever visited or search you’ve made when logged into your Google account, the contents of your emails and which ads you click, they know it all.

Not only that, but if you carry Google around in your pocket, in the form of an Android phone, then practically every move you make.

Google is literally a giant ads platform, with millions of websites using their services to both be found, and to generate revenue by allowing Google to place targeted ads on their sites. Chrome in particular is known for its eagerness to allow websites to track you for ad purposes.

Social media agencies track you too

As if you could have not noticed, with Facebook accused of mass surveillance, and the Cambridge Analytica scandal, social media networks exist solely to make money through ads targeted towards people based on their behaviours, interests, friends, location, and many other demographics.

What’s really scary is the sheer amount of information that people are willing to share on social.

Everything from intimate details of their lives, to vacation plans, family information and more.

And you know those quizzes that help you determine what type of cheese you are, or your heavy metal stage-name? They’re a goldmine of information for anyone building up a profile of you for use in an identity fraud attack.

2. How do they do it?

Browser fingerprint

The thing about government agencies is that they tend to be quite secretive about their capabilities, which is why it’s so hard to tell exactly how advanced their surveillance is, but you can bet that it’s come a long way since the Snowden revelations.

There are some common techniques technologies that allow not just governments, but your ISP and potentially search engines and social media companies, to keep their watchful eyes over you almost all the time.

Deep packet inspection

Deep packet inspection (DPI) is a method of processing data, where data packets (how information travels around the internet, between your router and ISP, etc.) are analysed and evaluated, before a decision is made as to what to do with it.

DPI is a vital aspect of anti-virus and firewall protection, because it works in real time and can block unwanted payloads or intruders entering the system. It can also be used to prioritize certain internet traffic types.

So far, so good, right?

Well, DPI can also be used for more sinister purposes.

With this ability for a high-level of analysis to be done on data packets, it is also possible to monitor online activity as part of a surveillance operation.

DPI for surveillance purposes is most likely to be performed by a government agency or potentially an ISP if instructed to do so by law enforcement, although it is also a favourite of hackers carrying out a man-in-the-middle (MITM) attack.

What is a man-in-the-middle attack?

MITM is a type of cyber attack whereby the attacker positions themselves between the sender and recipient of data. For this article, we can think of it as someone intercepting data between your computer and the website you’re visiting.

Man in the middle attack

This could be information you’re entering on websites, or messages you’re sending through unencrypted channels.

Fortunately, most major online services such as Facebook, Messenger, Amazon, and all reputable websites, use TLS to encrypt all traffic between the web browser or app, and their own servers. This means that a MITM attacker would only be able to see the name of the service you’re using, and a load of encrypted data.

This is useless information unless they’re building a profile of the services you use in order to perform a more sophisticated social engineering attack.

Governments, however, may be able to access server logs of websites and therefore discover the exact time of a specific communication, which could point to a user’s actions. In this case the protection of encryption is irrelevant.

Browser fingerprinting

Every time you visit a website, your browser sends detailed information about your computer, browser and settings, location, etc.

This information includes your language settings, cookies, previous webpage if you followed a link, screen resolution, installed plugins, enabled fonts, and many others.

All of these put together will often create a profile that’s totally unique to you, like a fingerprint.

Now, the thing that makes browser fingerprinting so scary – it can be performed by any website you visit. What’s more, it’s extremely accurate.

The main threat to privacy from browser fingerprinting is persistent targeted ads from agencies using your browsing habits as markers to link you with companies.

Governments almost certainly also use browser fingerprinting when surveilling a target.

Finally, while many people assume that using a VPN will keep their information totally private, that’s not the case – VPNs do nothing to mitigate the threat of browser fingerprinting.

Cookies

Cookies are tiny text files that many websites save to your browser.

They’re mostly harmless, and contain information such as a login command so you don’t need to keep entering your password each time you visit Facebook etc.

Cookies are also used to track you across the internet. Companies such as Google and Facebook drop a cookie on your browser whenever you visit websites that are advertising through them. This is then used to display targeted ads to maximise profitability.

Targeted ads aren’t really the most worrying form of online surveillance, although the problem occurs when companies such as Google and Facebook store enormous amounts of data connected with each individual.

How to block cookies in Chrome

You can actually block cookies in Chrome, by default. Here’s how:

  1. 1. Click the three dots under the X in the top right of chrome, then choose “settings”

  2. 2. Scroll down to the bottom of the settings tab, and click “Advanced”

  3. 3. Now scroll down until you see “Site Settings”, click there, then on the next page, click “Cookies”.

  4. 4. For the most private setup, choose the following:


  5. Block cookies

    This will, of course, make your browsing experience a bit more annoying, as you’ll suddenly be logged out of everything, but you can add sites to a whitelist under “Allow” at the bottom of that page.

    Another option is to use Firefox and privacy addons, or private browsers. Keep reading to find out how.

reCaptcha V3

Are you a robot?

Chances are you’ve had to prove you’re human at some point. More than 4.5 million websites use reCaptcha to block bots and automated scripts from accessing their pages.

Fighting spam does help make the internet a better place, but with so many websites using a service from a single company, questions are raised about whether that company is acting in the best interests of users.

Especially when that company is Google, who have already fallen foul of privacy regulations in Europe.

Google recently introduced rCaptchaV3, which does away with the user confirmation box, and instead is based upon collecting masses of data and creating profiles of how people interact with websites.

Rather than just your mouse clicks and how you navigate through websites, reCaptchaV3 appears to collect personally identifiable information, such as those gathered during browser fingerprinting, along with reading cookies installed on your browser.

This, in essence, allows Google to track individuals across a vast range of web properties not directly associated with the company. Really, it’s one of those – how much information are you comfortable sharing with Google – questions.

App vulnerabilities

App vulnerabilities are weaknesses in an app’s code that can be exploited by attackers to compromise its security and facilitate cyber crime.

Mobile apps are ubiquitous and millions are installed by mobile users around the world every day. There are many common attacks that are targeted towards these apps, and unfortunately, many apps aren’t built with security baked in.

Targeted apps range from Facebook games in which developers are able to leverage Facebook’s user base to market their app, as happened during the Cambridge Analytica scandal, to everyday apps such as WhatsApp, which was discovered to have a vulnerability allowing attackers to inject surveillance software onto users’ devices.

The only way to minimize the threat of internet surveillance resulting from app vulnerabilities is to use minimal apps – uninstall anything you don’t actually use – and make sure your apps are up to date.

Malware

Malware is the broad term that includes viruses and other malignant software.

All malware compromises the security of the infected device, and many forms of malware are used to monitor users either with the intention of stealing personal data, or to allow governments to access information on a target individual.

The US government has a long list of secretive malware they use to spy on citizens without their knowledge. Again, these things come up, people are momentarily outraged, then they forget.

Just go back to the top of this page and check the link to the Edward Snowden revelations to see all the malware information he leaked back in 2014.

Whilst the US denies their monitoring of citizens, the Chinese government doesn’t seem to care who knows. Travelers have recently been forced to install malware on their devices that gives access to pretty much everything.

3. How to hide from surveillance

So, do you feel like someone’s watching?

Internet-surveillance-hat

It’s pretty hard to tell for sure. But here are a few ways to make it harder to track your activity and mitigate the threat of online surveillance:

Monitor network connections

You can use a service such as GlassWire to monitor connections to your computer, but if you really want to dig deeper, follow the instructions here.

If you have a more advanced router than your standard ISP provided one, then you can set up rules and blocking to help protect you, along with a firewall and antivirus on the router itself.

Ditch Google – use a private browser and search engine

In case you haven’t noticed, Google collects a huge amount of your personal data.

If you’d prefer to avoid this, consider changing the services you use. Google is very convenient – search, email, storage and backup, and many other things, all handled in a central location. But the cost is your privacy.

So one way to instantly increase your privacy is to use private browsers and search engines that are built specifically to protect your privacy rather than profit from your personal details.

Use a VPN

A VPN protects data as it travels between your device and the internet by applying strong encryption that is pretty much uncrackable. I say pretty much here because, once again, the NSA really wants to crack it, and we just don’t know if they can yet.

As far as we know, the encryption used by the best VPN services is still uncrackable.

So that stops anyone seeing what data you’re sending and receiving, but it also helps you go undetected by changing your IP to that of the VPN server you’re connected to, so for all intents and purposes you’re physically located there.

This helps you avoid censorship or activity based surveillance.

Although it’s not foolproof, as I’ve already stated.

A VPN doesn’t make you anonymous online, it simply adds a layer of protection that significantly increases your privacy.

Other methods to match activity to a user, such as browser fingerprinting and malware, are still effective when using a VPN.

Use antivirus on your phone and computer

Do people still use antivirus?

They should. They definitely should.

Many of the biggest threats to online privacy can be thwarted by up-to-date malware protection.

Make sure to use a quality antivirus on both your computer AND phone, and please make sure it updates frequently.

Written by: Joe Robinson

Data privacy and cyber security writer. Joe has been working in the VPN field for over seven years, and has a passion for analysis and debate. He loves learning new technologies and software, and regularly uses everything from Kali Linux to Pro-tools. When not writing about digital security, Joe helps businesses improve their website usability and spends his free time playing guitar and reading about data science, IoT, and philosophy.

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