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What Is Internet Surveillance and How to Avoid It

Internet surveillance
Every day, it’s becoming more and more obvious that Internet regulations and censorship are becoming the norm. Governments are constantly passing laws that facilitate online surveillance and state cyber-policing. Concerns about online regulations can discourage citizens from exercising their freedom or engaging in legal activities online, making Internet surveillance an urgent matter of global importance.

But is it possible to avoid Internet surveillance?

What Is Internet Surveillance?

As a brief definition, Internet surveillance refers to your computer and online activity, online and offline data, and Internet traffic being monitored and logged by government agencies, ISPs, and – potentially – cybercriminals.

How and Why Are Governments Spying on You?

In recent years, organizations like the US’s National Security Agency (NSA) has been in the spotlight when it came to Internet surveillance. But even outside the US, many other governments are doing their best to spy on their citizens for alleged national security reasons, to collect data on potential criminals, and to prevent terrorist acts. While those are worthy causes, nowadays they’re mostly used as excuses to invade online users’ privacy.

Here are some of the most well-known surveillance agencies worldwide:

  • Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB)
  • The UK’s Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ)
  • Canada’s Communications Security Establishment Canada (CSEC)
  • The Australian Signals Directorate (ASD)
  • New Zealand’s Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB)

Governments use major tech companies in order to facilitate their access to private information. Even if companies don’t want to disclose information about their customers, in many cases they have no choice since agencies like the NSA can just force them to comply with their demands, which often include building backdoors that can be exploited by the NSA (and probably other surveillance agencies) in their software.

So, technology companies like Google, Facebook, or Yahoo can be forced to work with the government (on top of already working with advertisers).

How and Why Is Your ISP Spying on You?

Your Internet Service Providers (ISP) can track all the websites you connect to, which means they know everything about your browsing habits. They can also see everything you send over the Internet that isn’t encrypted.

ISPs can intercept and collect all the data you send and receive online through your IP address, whether you are using a browser’s Incognito/Privacy mode or not. Your IP allows every device connected to the Internet to be identified and located. That information – along with your browsing history – can be passed on to surveillance agencies since they are legally required to give up user data if requested.

ISP Spying

Besides that, many ISPs can sell user data to third-party advertisers for a profit. Also, they might engage in bandwidth throttling (intentionally slowing your speeds) if they notice you are using “too much data” for various online activities in an attempt to “convince” you to buy a pricier subscription or data plan.

How Can Search Engines Spy on You?

It’s no secret that the data collected by major search engines is a prime candidate for data mining. Most search engines like Google, Yahoo, or Bing collect and store huge amounts of personal data. They know your:

  • Name
  • Email address
  • Telephone number
  • Accounts
  • Interests
  • Search habits

And those are just a few examples. Basically, every search engine query can tell a great deal about who you are, where you are, what your interests are, whether or not you have any financial or health issues, and so on.

Search engines use your IP address, connection requests, and cookies to track what you do online. The information gathered can be sold to marketing companies for ad targeting. Google alone displays around 29.8 billion ads per day to users, so you can imagine how much user data is being shared with advertisers.

And yes, that’s entirely legal. In fact, if you check a search engine’s Terms of Services, you’ll see you already agreed to it when you decided to use their platforms.

How and Why Are Websites Spying on You?

Information is the new currency, and there are companies making a fortune from compiling, analysing, and selling your personal data.

Every time you access the Internet, you leave behind a digital trail of locations, searches, and other personal information. Most tracking is done through cookies – small text files that are placed on your device every time you access a website. Normally, you’ll be asked to give your consent for that to happen.

Cookies help with loading preferred content, saving shopping cart items even when you abandon the cart, and password recognition. Unfortunately, that data can also be used by advertisers to build accurate profiles of online users that are used to set up targeted ads. Surveillance agencies could potentially also get access to that kind of information.

Social Media and Internet Surveillance

It’s not really surprising that social media websites log a ton of user information. Just signing up for a popular platform means you’ll likely be giving away your email address, name, gender, and phone number.

Besides that, any social media website will know everything – and we mean everything – you do on their platform – what photos/videos you upload, who you talk to, what interests you have, etc.

However, the surveillance aspect goes beyond that. For one, did you know that social media websites don’t just share information with advertisers, but they also share user data with outside developers?

Social Media and Internet Surveillance

That’s right, Facebook – for example – will share public profiles with third-party apps that rely on Facebook data. Also, the website has been found to inappropriately share user information with over 60 device makers, and let’s not forget the Cambridge Analytica fiasco where over 87 million users were exposed to data mining. Twitter is guilty of practices like this too given that some of its market growth in 2018 was due to data licensing.

Lastly, don’t forget that most – if not all – social media platforms will collaborate with government surveillance agencies if necessary. Facebook is already part of the PRISM program, meaning the NSA or FBI could have direct access to your Facebook data through a backdoor. The same goes for Instagram and WhatsApp who are owned by Facebook.

How and Why are Hackers Spying on You?

Nowadays, almost anyone with a solid (sometimes even basic) understanding of technology and how the Internet works can use security weaknesses and exploits to spy on any online user – including you.

Hackers can easily access your computer or mobile device; access your webcam and all your computer files, passwords, bank account details (and so on) with the help of malicious pieces of code like trojans, spyware, or viruses. In some situations, it’s enough to just take advantage of an unsecured network you might be using to see everything you’re doing.

Other hacking methods include:

  1. Phishing – It’s basically fake websites set up to look exactly like the original, deceiving users and making them disclose their credit card details or other sensitive information. Phishing can also take the form of unsolicited emails that usually pretend to be sent from your bank or PayPal
  2. App vulnerabilities – Hackers essentially use flaws in the apps you install on your device to expose you to data leaks
  3. Unauthorised spam emails – They can be a huge threat since they can contain malware-infected links and files, or links to phishing websites

Why do cybercriminals do all that? Well, information is power, and hackers know that. They can use your data to:

  • Blackmail you
  • Steal your identity
  • Sell your personal data on the deep web to scammers
  • Plan real-life heists.

How to Avoid Internet Surveillance?

One important step to online privacy is data encryption. Whether it’s search engines, governments, or hackers, encryption makes your information almost impossible to monitor.

What Is Encryption?

Encryption means converting online and offline data into indecipherable gibberish. It’s done to prevent unauthorized access to sensitive information. You can learn more about encryption in this link.

How to Use Encryption Offline

Your best option is to use FDE (Full Disk Encryption) – encryption at a hardware level that can protect your personal data and files. Allegedly, FDE is so good that not even moving the hard drive into another device can help break it.

Setting up FDE can be a bit difficult, but here are a few guides that might prove useful:

You can also use software like VeraCrypt to manually encrypt your files. Here’s a useful guide from BestVPN.com on how to use it.

How to Use Encryption Online

Use Encrypted Messaging

If you don’t want anyone snooping on your conversations, you should use a messaging app that relies on end-to-end encryption. Our recommendation is Signal. It works on multiple devices, it’s free to use, and every single message you send is encrypted.

Only Access HTTPS Websites

HTTPS stands for Hypertext Transfer Protocol Secure, and it’s a network protocol that is used to transfer website code from a server to a device. HTTPS replaced HTTP long ago, and it’s the more secure network protocol.

As a general rule of thumb, you should always avoid HTTP websites because they don’t encrypt your traffic and data, making it easy for cybercriminals to steal sensitive information.

It’s pretty easy to tell HTTP websites apart from their HTTPS counterparts since the website address starts with “http://” instead of “https://,” and they don’t have a green padlock icon in the address bar. Most browsers (like Chrome and Firefox) will also mark HTTP websites as being “unsafe.”


Use Tor (The Onion Router)

Tor is free open source software that protects your online privacy by shuffling your data through a global network of relays. Each time it passes through a new relay, the data is re-encrypted.

But while Tor can be a nice, free way of protecting your data from online surveillance, there’s just one problem – once the data reaches the exit relay (the last relay it passes through before it reaches its destination), it’s no longer encrypted. In fact, the owner of the exit relay could potentially read all your traffic.

Use a VPN (Virtual Private Network)

A VPN is a service you can use to protect your privacy when you’re using the Internet. It relies on powerful encryption protocols that secure all your online traffic and data, making sure nobody (not the government, not hackers, and not your ISP) can monitor what you do online.

Besides encrypting your traffic, a VPN will also hide your IP address, making it harder for websites, search engines, and anyone else to track your geo-location and associate your online behavior with it.

VPNs are provided by third parties, and they are quite easy to set up and use. You usually only need to run an installer and use a client to connect to a VPN server, and that’s it.

Interested in Using a VPN?

CactusVPN has got exactly what you need in terms of online security – high-end AES encryption that keeps any kind of Internet surveillance at bay and a user-friendly client that works on multiple devices.

Plus, you can freely switch between VPN protocols to use the highly secure OpenVPN protocol whenever you wish, and we don’t keep any logs, meaning you don’t need to worry about any surveillance on our end.

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We strongly believe that even if you have nothing to hide, you still have the fundamental and democratic right to privacy, and you need to protect it. So stay informed at all times, and make sure you are using the right technology and services to secure your personal information to avoid Internet surveillance.

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Tim has been writing content and copy for a living for over 4 years, and has been covering VPN, Internet privacy, and cybersecurity topics for more than 2 years. He enjoys staying up-to-date with the latest in Internet privacy news, and helping people find new ways to secure their online rights.