Back in March a handful of news stories about internet surveillance were published, but went largely unnoticed. A report by Wired was picked up by The Guardian and a couple of others, but surprisingly didn’t make the TV headlines.
Maybe that should be unsurprisingly, since privacy and security aren’t exactly riveting topics for most people. But if you missed the news, it was the revelation that two unnamed UK ISPs have been - for the past two years - secretly monitoring and recording which websites their customers visit.
It’s part of a Home Office trial to decide if this type of surveillance on a national level is useful or necessary. Not much more than that is known about the trial, which hasn’t been announced publicly.
Should we be shocked by this snooping? Not at all says Simon Edwards, CEO of SE Labs. “Sadly we’ve always been watched: look at the amount of CCTV around the country. GCHQ has been monitoring our phone calls and emails forever, so it’s hardly surprising that the websites we visit are being tracked.”
Back in 2013 whistleblower Edward Snowdon said as much when he revealed that the US and UK governments were spying on citizens on a massive scale, collecting, processing and storing our digital footprints.
While the UK government has never admitted to this, it’s not much of a stretch to believe it’s happening. It’s not what we all want, of course, but there are good reasons for it. Chief among which is to monitor the bad guys and stop them, ideally before they do anything bad.
But what can the average person do about keeping their internet activity private? Not a lot according to Edwards. “The reality is that the average person is going to have to accept mass surveillance. It’s all about threat modelling. If your ‘enemy’ is a criminal or large social media company, there are tools you can use to defend yourself effectively. But if it’s the government, you’re in trouble as it has infinite resources.”
One option is to use a VPN. This software creates an encrypted connection from your device (a laptop, phone – whatever) to the internet and stops your ISP and, by extension, the government, from seeing what you’re up to on the internet.
Using a VPN on every device you own, though, is onerous. Some, such as media streamers and games consoles don’t support VPNs and the only realistic way to cover every device is to set up a VPN connection on your internet router.
That’s all well and good, assuming your router allows you to do it but even then, as Edwards points out, “there’s nothing to say VPN providers wouldn’t work with governments. They’ll all bend to pressure”.
Most cloud VPN providers say they don’t log any information at all, but as an average consumer, you simply have to take their word for it. There have been several well-documented incidents in the past where VPN companies have turned over user data that wasn’t supposed to exist leading to people being arrested and charged with crimes.
That isn't to say that you shouldn't trust any VPN. Far from it. You just need to pick wisely.
I spoke to Hidden24, a Swedish VPN provider which prides itself on running a non-cloud-based service. Instead of renting servers from data centres, it uses its own router-like hardware which not even the company employees can access.
Once deployed, they run autonomously and are designed so they cannot be accessed. Should the company be pressured to hand over user data, the only response a government would get is “Sorry, but there’s simply nothing to share”. The company says it can verify this to the point where even a government would recognise that it was a dead end.
So, if you’re incensed by the thought that every website you visit and the files you download could be recorded, then use a VPN. And consider using one like Hidden24. It’s not going to be particularly convenient, and you’ll still have to take extra steps to ensure your devices still use the VPN when connected to 4G or a Wi-Fi network that’s not your home network.
Ultimately, as Edwards puts it, “We should all have a right to privacy, but the efforts to counter mass surveillance just aren’t worth it for the average person. We need to expect less privacy in future and be sure not to do anything online you wouldn’t want to appear in the papers the following morning.”