Privacy Tools to help you research sensitive topics anonymously
Whilst the main thing is no doubt silence, willpower and discretion on behalf of those hard working researchers, they don’t do this without at least some tech help in the form of various privacy tools.
Lots of you may have seen Citizen 4 with Edward Snowden on his data leak (national hero FYI!) but once of the interesting things about it was how simple some of the privacy tools are and how critical they were to the operation.
One privacy tool that probably scares a lot of people away is Tor (short for The Onion Ring / router). Its a network that helps obscure the users and their activity. Originally it was designed for military obuscation and application it also later fuelled the ‘dark net’ or the hidden internet. That’s the non indexed internet thats outside of the usual .com or .net etc infrastructure we all use everyday.
This part of the internet was highlighted notably by the Silk Road case but it is far older than that. It also has legitimate uses. Sometimes you just don’t want your site to be indexed it could be quite legitimate. In most instances unless you physically give someone the url they won’t find it so its handy for testing. Even big companies have been known to use hidden sites to use for testing.
Searching is only one part of the job though. In order to put something together on the scale of the panama papers you really need help, which means you need to communicate. A LOT!. So planning end to end secrecy is a must.
Here are some privacy tools that are helpful for research and communication when secrecy and privacy is an absolute requirement.
Privacy Tools to help you research sensitive topics anonymously
The TOR Browser Bundle
Tor is a suite of privacy tools that enables users privacy to mask information about the individual, their location, where they are connecting to the Internet, and in some cases where the sites they are accessing are located. The Tor network relies on volunteers to run ‘nodes’ that traffic can pass through, but connecting is as easy as downloading the Tor Browser Bundle and hopping online.
In UnlockWorldTVs opinion, TOR is best suited with specialty Linux OS recipes such as TAILS which is mentioned below.
My personal choice for using the Tor network is through a dedicated operating system that enforces strong privacy- and security-protective defaults. That operating system is The Amnesiac Incognito Live System (or TAILS). The whole package is a privacy tool. For best results run it from a non writable disk OR from a USB disk. Bare in mind that in order to maximise security you may want to consider if saving documents is the way to go hence I say, use a non writable disk, whether that be USB, CD, DVD or whatever.
Freedom of the Press Foundation comes with SecureDrop, a whistleblower submission system designed for journalists who wish to protect the anonymity of their sources. SecureDrop was originally designed by the late activist Aaron Swartz and the journalist Kevin Poulsen, and has been actively developed by Freedom of the Press Foundation and a network of volunteers for the past year. It has been deployed a number of prominent news organizations, including the New Yorker, Forbes, ProPublica, The Guardian, The Washington Post, and Poitras and Greenwald’s current publication, The Intercept. (source) Another alternative might be SpiderOak. Although it is a cloud storage provider, unlike Dropbox and its ilk, SpiderOak doesn’t hold any keys to the files stored. Its users hold all the keys. Fascinating.
GPG encryption is way to put end to end encryption on emails. Its by no means the only method, but was ‘popularised’ by Citizen 4 and the portrayal of its necessity in the film. GPG has been criticized for being unfriendly to new users and it was a bit tricky, mores because BOTH of the users needed to be able to use it. The problem with uncovering something is that oftentimes you won’t all have the same level of skill in implementing things like this. The EFF have tried to make it easier though. See their guides for Mac, Windows, and GNU/Linux. GPG is an offshoot of PGP which is still alive and kicking and part of Symantec. The product is no longer free.
OTR Instant Messaging
The Off-The-Record protocol allows for encrypted communication over existing popular instant messaging networks. It is one of the simplest ways for two users to get end-to-end encryption; See more information on how to use OTR for Mac and Windows. (Source)
Hard disk encryption
Is there a more obvious choice for a privacy tool than an encrypted hard disk? Im not sure. But while CITIZENFOUR was in production, the team behind the popular Truecrypt software stopped. supporting it. Luckily there are still viable alternatives for full-disk encryption such as DiskCryptor. Bit locker is another popular disk encryption tool and is even in use in commercial environments (if that swings it for you!) The EFF has kindly written a Surveillance Self-Defense guide, as well as general tips for full-disk encryption on Mac and GNU/Linux systems. You should definitely check it out. The EFF is a fascinating site anyway! Highly recommended
A paradox of BitCoin being a completely transparent system with every single transaction being viewable in a blockchain is that it can also be used to hide money or at least the origin of money. I don’t mean in a money laundering type of way, I mean in a way that the transaction is legitimate but not traceable to you (easily if at all). There are even tools online that spin the money to make it even harder to track than it already is. The beauty is in one time use addresses. If you set up a brand new BitCoin address and use it once and only once then there is no reasonable way of tracking it to you unless you give someone your wallet details or they acquire wallet details from you in some kind of social engineering manner.
You may need to pay fees and expenses throughout your research in which case BitCoin would be a great help to you vs the use of a normal debit or credit card which has the date, time, merchant and full details of both sender and recipient.
Document Shredding or Hard Drive Wiping tools
If you don’t want to leave a trace then you might need to delete your files. Right clicking and deleting just won’t do it though. Normally deletion on a windows PC just tells your PC to mark that space as available for future files. The file is still there and easy to recover. Software like Eraser from Heidi.ie helps you delete those files for good.
Created by the Tor Project and the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), the HTTPS Everywhere plug-in forces your browser into loading a secure version of a site in preference to a page that doesn’t contain a security certificate. This makes browsing more secure by encrypting everything from your computer to their server, and vice-versa.
The browser plug-in is designed for Chrome, Firefox, and Opera, is also available for Firefox for Android.
Online Tracking Tools
Such as Ghostery show you what companies are doing to track you. It also blocked just shy of 2000 trackers. Whilst TOR would be more effective, this is a good one for everyday online personal privacy.
DuckDuckGo is a search engine that is not google (yes there are other search engines!!) no results are personalised i.e. every user gets the same results. No logs are kept, no user data mined and actually its pretty good! try it at DuckDuckGo.com
Using TOR is a great way to hide your location. You could also use a VPN from IPVanish or PureVPN both services have a no logging policy. This may also help you further better the effectiveness of TOR by encrypting your activity at the TOR exit nodes. However your internet speed would take a bit of a hit!
OpenDNS aims to make the internet safer and more reliable, while at the same time improving your internet speeds and connection’s reliability. OpenDNS offers malware and botnet protection, and Web filtering for home users. This can help prevent gaining access to sites that are honeypots for hackers, or might put users at risk. And best of all, it’s free.
Encrypted Phone Calls
Silent Circle isn’t free but is a premium application for users to make end to end encrypted Voice Calls (yes remember those!!).
So there you have it, plenty of tools many of which are free to help you in your quest to research the next big thing, or just a ‘sensitive topic’ that you would prefer privacy around. With these tools it means research doesn’t have to be all by yourself, and you can share your knowledge and burden with the right tools.
If you’ve researched a topic and needed some extra privacy and security and you used different tools let me know in the comments and I can add them to the list.
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