What Cyber-Security Means for Online Freedom

Online freedom is under attack right around the world.

Some might say it has always been under attack, and today we are just more aware of it than has previously been the case. But the harsh reality is that, in 2016, there are precious few countries where people can log onto the Internet without fear of their activity being watched or even censored by their government.

Ask people in the street today whether you can go online and be sure of your privacy and most would say no. But if you had done the same five years ago, most would have said yes. Back then, the perception held by the majority of people was that it was only authoritarian regimes that watched their citizen’s online activity. China did of course; Iran, naturally; Belarus, yes of course.

But then in 2013, there was a watershed moment in the issue of online freedom. Edward Snowden appeared in a hotel room in Hong Kong with reams of data showing how the U.S. and U.K governments systematically monitored the online activity of not just some, but all of their citizens.

The impact of his revelations was seismic both on the intelligence establishment, which had been quietly going about its business for more than a decade, and Internet users.

Intelligence agencies were quick to downplay the revelations and publicly shut programs down, while privately just moving them offshore or rebranding them.

As for Internet users, they were suddenly awakened to the fact that heir data wasn’t safe and private online and they did not enjoy anything like the level of online freedom they had previously thought. And it was not just hackers who were the threat. It was their own governments as well.

At the same time, the war on terror was taking an unexpected turn as the Arab Spring led to instability across the Middle East and North Africa and the rise of a new wave of terrorist groups who posed a real risk to Western Security.

This security risk was just what the intelligence services wanted, and their intrusive online spying programs are now being repackaged as essential anti-terrorist tools that are necessary in the dark, terrorist-filled world of 2016.

In the U.K., the government is passing the Investigatory Powers Bill to put their long-running program of surveillance and bulk data collection on a legal footing. In Belgium, which recently fell victim to terrorist attacks, there is a similar bill to beef up the online surveillance powers of law enforcement bodies. Even neutral Switzerland has recently held a referendum where the majority of people agreed to give great surveillance powers to their government.

The swath of intrusive steps in the west is, in turn, fueling more regressive policies in those same authoritarian regimes as well.

China is stepping up its surveillance powers still more, making social media comments admissible in court and clamping down on online news agencies.  Russia has just passed draconian new laws to require ISPs to retain all user data and make all encrypted communication available to security forces. And Iran is creating its own domestic internet as it attempts to mirror the effect of China’s Great Firewall.

So, against this unprecedented wave of intrusions into online freedom, how are ordinary internet users reacting? Some are shrugging their shoulders, admitting defeat, and taking the line of ‘Well, I’ve got nothing to hide’.

But others are fighting back by taking advantage of the new wave of online cybersecurity tools and secure communications programmes which are now on the market and inexpensive enough for the average online users to take advantage of.

First and foremost, VPN use across the globe is growing exponentially. VPNs offer a variety of benefits to users, many of which are privacy-related.

A VPN encrypts all online traffic from a user’s device meaning that all of their online activity is secure from prying eyes. It also reroutes all traffic via an external device. This serves to hide a user’s IP Address and so render them anonymous online.

Both of these are beneficial for users in countries with oppressive online regulations, which as we have seen is a growing number.

And there are plenty of other benefits of a VPN too. For example, a VPN can allow users to access geo-restricted Web content, like, for example, BBC iPlayer (which is restricted to users within the U.K. only) while overseas. In the modern interconnected world, this can be a great benefit to business people and travellers alike.

A VPN is one of the most effective tools to protect your online freedoms, but it is by no means the only one.

The TOR Network is another online privacy tool which reroutes your online traffic via numerous ‘nodes’ meaning that your online activity is totally anonymous. TOR is free to use just by downloading the TOR browser, which is a stable and private online tool.

Many websites still use the HTTP protocol which is insecure and easy for hackers and surveillance officers to penetrate. A free and easy-to-download browser extension like HTTPS Everywhere forces websites to load in a secure format or warns you if this is not possible. As HTTP is gradually phased out, these are very useful tools to help you avoid insecure websites.

There are also other encryption tools that protect your devices as well. For example, BitLocker is a full disk encryption tool that is already integrated into your Windows software. It is easy-to-use helps to protect your data from hackers and others who might be trying to infiltrate your device.

Last, but by no means least comes Password Managers. Everyone uses passwords on the myriad of online accounts we all have. Yet it is hard to remember many complex passwords, which means most of us either use the same password for multiple accounts or just use something easy to remember.

With a password manager, such as LastPass you can store all of your passwords in one safe place, which can then be accessed by a single master password which is all you have to remember. They can also generate complex passwords that are difficult to crack meaning that all your online accounts should be secure from even the most persistent of surveillance officers.

All of these tools are either free or cost no more than a few dollars a month. All are hugely effective at enhancing your online freedom, and all show that despite the efforts of Governments to intrude on ou online freedom, by taking a few affordable and simple steps, online freedom and privacy is still achievable.


Monika Tudja is the Head of business development at Fried.com – a website dedicated to educate individuals on how to protect their online privacy through comprehensive guides and tutorials. She is passionate about online privacy, cyber security and maintaining a “free web” for the entire globe.

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