Simple Digital Privacy in a Complex Digital Age

In an age where a Google search can reveal horrible or embarrassing content about anyone, the global Justice-Intelligence Complex stores everything it can on all individuals at all times, and private companies deploy secretive aggressive tracking technologies hiding public knowledge in the depths of discombobulating Terms of Service agreements, one can indeed feel less free and fearful, even if no one actually took away one’s freedoms. 

The state of fear, caused by the more baleful possibilities this passive data storage enables and worsened by the inherent weakness in so many ‘secure’ technologies, can inhibit one’s ability to perform normal tasks involving online technologies.  This, for some, is equally as crippling to freedom as physical bullies, ex-girlfriends and ex-boyfriends, or municipal bureaucrats are.  Fortunately, there are a few actions one can take to reduce visibility in the digital realm in case that is a concern (which for me, it personally is a concern).

The Internet Search or Protection against Individuals

The first and easiest (at least, according to me on account of my experiences in researching the methods behind this article) privacy task anyone can do is reduce their visibility in search engines, namely Google.  Note that this particular tactic is only practical if you are not a particularly public figure, as it is beyond the scope of this article to assist public figures in their disappearance from public view.  This is meant for non-public individuals.  Chances are, you have heard people say, ‘Google it!’  An article published to Cision emphasizes the widespread significance of this powerful phrase.[1]  Although the author discusses how to achieve top results in a Google search, that knowledge is useful in determining how to hide results of pages that you made about yourself on the web, or to at least hide these results from Google and other search engines.  If you have EU citizenship and would like to take this a step further, you could research the ‘Right to Be Forgotten,’ though it should be noted that this only applies to EU citizens on EU  versions of search engines and can lead to what can beinterpreted as censorship, and that discussion is for another time.[2]

Now, a rudimentary understanding of search engines is quite beneficial in one’s hunt to hide personally-posted, public content online.  Search engines operate by using what are called web crawler programs, the name of which is probably of little relevance to this article.  These crawler programs provide the Google results you see by periodically finding publically available, standard-format content about anything on the internet.  This information is then analyzed automatically and, in many cases, leaves a copy of that information on Google.  Some of that information might pertain to you negatively or positively, but regardless, all that it can find, link, and read, it places a link or sometimes a copy of that information onto Google’s servers for anyone to find.  Understanding this process is how one can render a more effective search for data to hide.

These facts are necessary premises to communicate the next point, which will include screenshots.  To hide content that you posted years ago from Google or other search engines, you can complete one or more of several tasks:

1)    A proof-of-concept, personally tested method: Make the data non-existent, at least in the published form on a particular website’s server.  If you happen to have a web page or post that you made that you would like removed, contact that website’s management and request that that specific page be taken down.  Usually the contact form will ask for a name, an email address to contact you by, and a box to enter in your message or an email address to send inquiries to.  Be courteous, state your request (and include the precise link or links) and leave an email address they can contact you by and, in my experiences, management usually respond within 48 hours. Either the page will have been successfully taken down or the management may ask you for verification of information of some sort, usually an email address, and in rare cases, a photo ID picture (which you can blot out the sensitive information of).  In the images below, I detail what I mean using, where I actually requested that my account be removed from their servers last week, and received a successful response within 10 minutes!

2)    In case the non-existent page results still appear in search results and does not update after a few days, it may be time to request Google to remove the result for at least 90 days from its search results.  The page for that should look like the image below, minus the obvious edits:

3)    If you do not want to eliminate the content, update the content so that it is private.  If this involves social media posts or pages, for example, simply change some settings on your account so that your account and posts are private.  To take this a step further, use an alias for your accounts online, as I do for my Twitter page.

4)    If you do not want to eliminate your content and still want it to be publically accessible, you can move the content into non-standard file formats that web crawlers cannot read or in pages that are not linked on other webpages.  Web crawlers do not watch videos and they often are unable to explore onion links.  You may also utilize a robots.txt file with mixed results.

5)    Often times, public records are available publicly online and display discomforting amounts of information about individuals in searchable formats.  While this is usually searchable by standard search engines, a first and last name is all one needs to get vast amounts of other information about an individual.  My only recommendation here isto simply not register one’s self into voter databases and the like.[3]

While it might seem like I am a spokesman for Google or other companies here (or that this writing is condescending), know that the internet is operated by private companies and so practical advice will involve at least some of these names, especially when one like myself cannot code.  Also, some of these names are about to come under heavy criticism.

Stealth against Private Companies and Governmental Organization

Since at least the Edward Snowden leaks of mid 2013,USIC, theFive Eyes Network and local, state, regional and federal law enforcement agencies have sought to rapidly extend their surveillance reach to everyone and to compromise every single network communication they can collect, store, and analyze.[4][5]  They have billions of dollars in funding and a vast array of employees.  So what can one do?

First, one must understand how communications are stored, how one is targeted and by whom.  If you chat or send text messages, it is safe to assume that the company providing this service and the middle companies transferring the data are storing your communications ormetadata about your communications in some form.[6]  After logging in, you notice your chat history is still there—clear evidence of storage.  This storage is indeed convenient and many individuals do want their communications stored for this reason, but it is how that chat history is used afterwards that can be spooky.

It may be encrypted or unencrypted, but even many encrypted services have built in weaknesses called ‘backdoors’ that were intentionally designed for exploitation by government organizations, particularly the Five Eyes Network organizations.  Something you communicated, created, or searched a while ago could come trouble you legally, even if you were not involved in illicit actions you were chatting about.  For instance, with today’s private-government alliances, The Guardian and other sources reported that a woman had her house searched by police after a family member’s search history that involved pressure cooker explosives and backpacksprompted the former employer to notify police about their online activities.[7]

And even if the consequence of the searches does not manifest itself in the form a visit from armed bureaucrats, it could still end you up on one of many watch lists.  More often than not, certain keywords in posts or internet searches that are often completely benign in nature may result inincreased DHS surveillance of your online activities using the ‘Desktop Binder.’[8]

This document was only released to the public viathe arduous legal efforts of EPIC (Electronic Privacy Information Center), though with some redaction as a sort of taunt to the public.[9]  The digital aggression, however, is evident even in the unsealed elements of the document.  Imagine the sheer amount of harmless communications that these agencies capture and then pursue without a justifiable reason.  What a waste of effort and what a horrifying thought.  And the DHS would not be the first agency to experience this ‘needle in an artificial haystack’ problem.  An NSA document titled Too Many Choices provided to The Intercept discusses the problem of scale within intelligence agencies in general, especially for SIGINT (SIGnals INTelligence): expanding the haystacks of communications captured in the surveillance machine will increase the difficulty of finding the needles.[10]

But the ability to retroactively look at everything a person said online in the past, metadata or not, public and private, is far too tempting for bureaucrats to let go of.  US President Barack Obama pushed for an extension of key surveillance provisions in the Patriot Act under the USA ‘Freedom Act.’  The only difference, at least officially, is that private companies will be required to collect and store all the information in bulk which the NSA was authorized to do under the expired provisions of the Patriot Act.  So now, Verizon, AT&T, Facebook, Google, and other major telecommunication companies will collect all that invasive metadata that, under Smith v. Maryland,is not protected under the Fourth Amendment of the US Constitution.[11]

Let us face it—every single person has something to hide.  The next time you see an anti-privacy advocate, politely ask them for their house key and for their online account information by reason that they should not possess anything they are hiding.  Usually their reaction should provide you with all the verification you need to substantiate that claim.  As an example, according to page 171 of No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State, investigative journalist Glenn Greenwald reports that Mark Zuckerberg, the CEO of Facebook, purchased four adjacent homes around his property in Palo Alto with costs in the millions of dollars—all to ensure his own personal privacy.[12]  The fact that he is such a public figure while generating revenue from Facebook user’s willingness to share information about themselves is not the point—the point is that even he has something he does not want others seeing.  I imagine that other internet company chief executives have similar dilemmas, but enough about them and their dilemmas, as they are not relevant to low cost privacy tactics.

The first weapon in the battle against passive, mass surveillance is encryption.  Yes, I am fully aware that Facebook, Apple, Google and other companies encrypt your communications—but the systems automatically read through your posts and messages.  That is why you have targeted ads related to your online activities displayed on the sides of unrelated webpages.

Also, the keys to your encrypted conversations are stored on the host servers, so if company employees decide they have reason to search your conversations, your conversations will be exposed and can be handed over to authorities, should you happen to discuss pressure cookers and backpacks.  AReuters article from 2012 describes how a man who allegedly solicited a minor was flagged by Facebook’s software and reported to authorities and subsequently arrested.[13]  A Facebook page created by Facebook staff for law enforcement sheds some more light on the nature of this surveillance.[14] This is an example of the more passive surveillance that ultimately may lead to exposure of conversations once thought to be totally private.  In my own experiences, Google, Facebook, Twitter, and perhaps other companies offer you the option of downloading your data archive if you so choose.  The archive is the minimum amount of data these companies store concerning you—chats, emails, posts, photos, videos, friends, apps, et cetera.  What the archives likely may not include is the metadata associated with that content, which is conditionally more invasive than content itself.  To demonstrate the feasibility of this claim, let me show you a redacted screenshot of a data archive that I had to fight a certain company to obtain about my own data.  Take a look:

The data stored that they gave me included time when messages were sent to and from that account, to whom the messages were sent (identified by phone number), and the messages themselves.  I happened to be sent a set of Microsoft Excel files, which is why I have an image of the archive I requested in Excel.  That is the minimum amount of data this company stores about me and my messages that I had to obtain via legal consent forms from the law enforcement team at this particular company.

While it does present some metadata, it is likely that the law enforcement team decided to not include more metadata such as MAC addresses, network identifiers, device operating systems, ISP information, log-in data, and, with further coordination with service providers, real-time location data of users to an accuracy of centimeters.  Now, granted, some of these companies will not care about this data very much and will actually overwrite your data periodically and may actually use it for benign purposes.

If you want to use location services to locate yourself on a map, you need to give some information to that service so that it locates you.  These are very valuable services—when controlled, known, and consensual.  But because the capabilities of these services are oftenburied deep in Terms of Service agreements, patents, or trade secrets that may change without notice, are sometimes difficult to find, and often incomprehensible without a justice degree, I think it is fairly reasonable to suspect that any phone today may be locatable whenever it is on and within range of a cell tower.[15]  In western countries, nearly every location on land is within range of a cell tower.

Ultimately, all of these practices and the rights of your own content owned almost entirely by the services you may frequently and indifferently click “I accept” to, do not be surprised if the information you shared about yourself grants you an online stalker,an investigation by your two-hop association to others, an embarrassing advertisement using your photos on social media, new spam emails, or new, physical junk mail.[16]  Any of these things may be more than the desired amount of nuisance online, so if you do not want to risk any of this, be extra careful about the content you post online, as you never know how technology companies are using your data.

Fortunately, some solutions are freely available online.  Micah Lee, one of the first people Snowden contacted about concerning the 2013 revelations,wrote a 30-page whitepaper titled Encryption Works, detailing methods of free, secure, open-source encryption that exists because of the voluntary generosity of small groups of individuals working to defend privacy online.  Since 30 pages may be too boring or time-consuming for most readers (and I do not write that in a demeaning way), I will highlight the important points.[17]

1)    On pages 10 and 11, Lee discusses OTR client programs.  For Windows and GNU/Linux users, Pidgin will be the program of choice.  For Mac OS X users, Adium will be the program of choice.  OTR programs allow you to utilize the full strength of end-to-end encryption, usually with AES-256, for individual sessions.  Each conversation has its own key, though you will need to validate the digital fingerprint of one another via other means that require more work to attack, such as Twitter.  In my case, I utilize Adium, displayed below:

Create a digital fingerprint for yourself and share it with trusted contacts via Lee’s recommended methods.

2)  On pages 16 through 23 of the document, Micah Lee discusses Pretty Good Privacy, or PGP for short.  PGP is excellent in that is allows you to add a digital signature that is verifiable to whatever you encrypt, should you so choose.  It also allows you to encrypt multiple files at once.  You can store all your keys here, and export them, if you wish, though I only recommend exporting them via flash drive and not the internet to reduce the possibility of interception. In the case of OS X, ensure that you can encrypt text, images, emails and files by changing your shortcuts in the Settings app are checked off and that your Thunderbird mail signatures are set up with the GPG keys you have created.

The green setting in the top right corner of the menu allows you to decide whether you want this particular email to be sent in encrypted form or not.  This guide from GPGTools[18] should explain what you need to know before you use this secure encryption method.

3) Use Tor (the onion router).  Tor redirects encrypted traffic via multiple random computers to ensure great difficulty of potential surveillance.  While the the endpoints do not know which machines made the original requests, this is a great way to conceal your identity online.  Because using only Tor is not foolproof, do not send communications that could identify you via Tor, including unique web searches for pressure cookers at the same time from the same node on the same search engine.  To understand why this is, look over theTor Project’s overview of Tor.[19]

4)  Use a read-only virtual machine.  While Michael Lee specifically recommends Tails, successful installation of it requires a proper flash drive, all my attempted installations of Tails were unsuccessful.  As far as a tested OS, I recommend installing Whonix on a flash drive along with VirtualBox on your computer.  Of course, you do not need to install it on a flash drive.  Whonix OS is a Linux based, read-only operating system which has Tor built in.  In case Whonix is hijacked, you can quickly quit the application without exposing your identity or details about your host machine.  This is important because it allows many key details to be hidden about your internet traffic online, which are the first clues governments and companies utilize to identify you.  An installation guide is available here.[20]  Using it should not be too difficult.  I made a video that explains how to use it once you have installed it.  Check it out:

5)  Use a free (or paid) ‘no limit’ virtual private network.  I personally use Opera’s SurfEasy VPN, which is available in a free and an inexpensive premium version.  Be cautious when browsing the web, however.  There is a chance your location is discoverable even while utilizing a solid virtual private network due to insecurities in Flash, Java, et cetera.  Ensuring protection from these vulnerabilities requires further installation of browser add-ons such as NoScript for Mozilla Firefox.

6)  Use an end-to-end encrypted email service.  Edward Snowden used Lava Bit while it still was in operation, for example.  I understand that most of these services are premium-only, but there are a few free ones out there that work very well.  One that comes to mind is ShazzleMail.  Shazzlemail emails are stored locally on your computer or mobile device, not on Shazzlemail servers.  It also conceals metadata, which further secures the transmission of user data.  Additionally, it offers free and prompt user support as well as premium services, should you deem them fit.  Shazzlemail also offers the same services for mobile devices.

And there you have it.  Using this knowledge and these tactics, you should be able to boost your digital stealth in the age of general data mining.  I have not delved into the morality of the surveillance machine, as that is out of the scope of this article, though I may write another article on that should that be requested.  Ultimately though, the point is: if you do not want others seeing it, do not communicate it online.

Authors note: This article is not intended to be a promotion or demotion of any products or services.  It is simply intended to be a guide for increased privacy in the digital world which is only possible because of individuals voluntarily working to create products, services and methods that make this possible. 

Any views or opinions expressed in this article are the solely the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of the Centre for Research on Globalization or  All images included in this article were produced by the author, and may include content that was not produced by the author but protected for publication as ‘fair use.’  For any questions or comments, you may contact the author on Twitter@VanthusPrime.  For hosting this article on other websites, the author consents so long as there is approval from management and a backlink to the original content.


[1] Just “Google It” – What the Power of This Phrase Means for Businesses Today. (2013, June 27). Cision. Retrieved from

[2] Hern, Alex (2015, December 29). Wikipedia swears to fight ‘censorship’ of ‘right to be forgotten’ ruling. The Guardian. Retrieved from

[3] Khandelwal, Swati (2015, December 28). 191 Million US Voters’ Personal Info Exposed by Misconfigured Database. The Hacker News. Retrieved from

[4] Director of National Intelligence. (2015). Retrieved from

[5] Privacy International. (n.d.). Retrieved from

[6] National Information Standards Organization. (2004). Retrieved from

[7] New York woman visited by police after researching pressure cookers online. (2013, August 1). The Guardian. Retrieved from

[8] Department of Homeland Security, National Operations Center. (2011). Analyst’s Desktop Binder. Retrieved from Andrea Stone, website:

[9] Electronic Privacy Information Center. (2012). Retrieved from

[10] Inside NSA, Officials Privately Criticize “Collect It All” Surveillance. (2015, May 28). The  Intercept. Retrieved from

[11] Joseph D. Mornin, NSA Metadata Collection and the Fourth Amendment, 29 Berkeley Tech. L.J. (2014). Available at:

[12] Greenwald, G. E. (2014). No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State. New York: Metropolitan Books.

[13] Social networks scan for sexual predators, with uneven results. (2012, July 12). Reuters.    Retrieved from

[14] [Facebook] Safety Center. Information for Law Enforcement Authorities. Retrieved from

[15] Logan, J (2014, May 20). THE BANALITY OF TERMS OF SERVICE AGREEMENTS [Web log post]. Retrieved from

[16] NSA warned to rein in surveillance as agency reveals even greater scope. (2013, July 17). The Guardian. Retrieved from

[17] Encryption Works: How to Protect Your Privacy in the Age of NSA Surveillance. (2013, July 24). Freedom of the Press Foundation, p. 10-11, 16-23. Retrieved from           

[18] GPGTools. (2014, August 28). GPGTools – OpenPGP on OS X (Introduction to GPG Suite)   [Video file]. Retrieved from

[19] Tor: Overview. Tor Project. Retrieved from

[20] Retrieved from

[21] Vanthus Prime. (2015, December 29). Using Whonix OS on Mac OS X [Video file]. Retrieved from

Articles Par : Martin Matuszewski

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