Online trust misplaced

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By Matt Bentley

Who can you trust online?

In a recent expose, Vice, a prominent online lifestyle and technology magazine, showed that antivirus company Avast was collecting and selling all of its free users’ web browsing data to other companies such as Microsoft, Google and many others.

This means that the company had basically unlimited access to information about your online life, who you wrote to, what you wrote and where you wrote it.

This is obviously a huge invasion of privacy, and although the data was supposedly ‘anonymised’ prior to resale to third party companies, experts believe it could easily be traced back to specific users by some third parties if and when desired. And unfortunately it’s nothing new.

Microsoft employees have been caught listening into calls made via Skype, and to audio recordings made through Xbox game machines. Google’s anonymous scraping of email data is well-known and used to target advertising to you – as are your search terms when using Google, and data recorded by Cortana (on Windows), Siri (on Apple devices) and ‘Ok Google’ (on Android phones).

But the tactics of Avast – and probably other ‘free’ antivirus programs made in China like “360 Total Security” – take this dynamic to a whole other level. With minimal effort, a third-party buying this data can find out more about your online life than you yourself remember.

So what to do? Microsoft already tracks your activity within Windows, which is why they are pushing so hard to get users into ‘Microsoft Accounts’ rather than ‘local accounts’, so they can tie your data to an individual user.

You can turn a lot of this stuff off, if you know how (search online for “Shutup10” to find one good tool for this) but some of it will still get through.

I remember a day when using a computer didn’t feel like a service, and was more like a using a tool. And I dislike the idea of being spied on constantly. Certainly I won’t recommend Avast to anyone in future, or Skype – but it seems like it’s getting harder to shut these corporations out of our home lives.

What you can do

As an individual, here are some things you can do:

1. Switch to Linux. For most users, the difference between using Linux and Windows, for basic things like web browsing, downloading pictures and emailing, is minimal. For things like office software, it’s a lot different. Of course it takes a bit of getting used to, and if you’re a novice it could be daunting, but you also don’t need to worry about things like antivirus clients and the like. Linux is a lot more secure than Windows.

2. Stop using Google to search, and use DuckDuckGo instead. DuckDuckGo is one of many search engines which do not track users, and it’s results are comparable.

3. Switch from Avast, if you’re using it, to a better paid antivirus product like Eset’s Internet Security, or rely on Windows 10’s built-in antivirus instead.

4. When a program asks you whether you want to opt-in to their ‘customer experience improvement program’, or similar, decline. Untick that box.

5. Don’t use Skype, Messenger or Facetime for calls. Try Whatsapp instead, which is fully encrypted end-to-end so others can’t spy in.

6. Use Mozilla’s Firefox web browser instead of Google’s Chrome or Microsoft’s Edge. Mozilla is a not-for-profit organisation and does not retain user data.

7. Stop giving money to services which take your data. Don’t reward Microsoft or Apple by buying their products.

Personally I’ll still use Google occasionally, because I find the search results are better for some things, and I suspect, as nefarious as they are, that they are less nefarious than the likes of Microsoft or Avast. I’ve personally used Libreoffice, the free and open-source office package, for years and it’s every bit as good as Microsoft’s offerings, though doubtless very different for those who are used to MS Office.

And personally I never recommend Outlook, due to the technical issues I see with it and end users. To an extent there’s a give-and-take with this sort of thing – Google only exists because it is able to monetise using your search data and funnel ads to you accordingly. But there is a point at which it becomes debatable that ‘free’ is worth the cost.

* Computer writer Matt Bentley is director of Bentley Home PC Support. Email Matt on info@homepcsupport.co.nz or phone 021-134-8576.

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