17 essential tools to protect your online identity, privacy

From secure chips to anonymity services, here’s how to stay safe and private on the web

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Secure chat. Most OS- and device-provided chat programs do not offer strong security and privacy. For strong end-to-end security you need to install an additional chat program. Luckily, there are dozens of chat programs, both free and commercial, that claim to offer greater security. Some require installation of a client app; others offer website services. Most require all parties to communicate with the same program or use the same website (or at least the same chat protocol and protection).

Common secure chat programs include ChatCrypt, ChatSecure, and Cryptocat. Most secure chat clients have the same basic features, so pick the one that enables you to communicate with the broadest set of people you need to securely chat with.

Secure payments. Most payment systems are required to store lots of information about you and your purchases, and they are usually required to provide payment or payer details when asked by law enforcement. Even if they aren’t required to provide detailed data to the police or governments, many payment databases are compromised each year by malicious hackers.

Most users wishing for greater payment anonymity on the internet are turning to online cryptocurrencies, such as bitcoin. Users must first buy bitcoins, usually via traditional online payment methods, and must go through bitcoin exchanges to get their bitcoin value back out into traditional currencies. Each exchange into and out of bitcoin typically takes a small payment fee.

Of course, the privacy and anonymity of virtual currencies comes with real risk. They are usually not considered legal currency and may not be provided the same protections under law as “real” currencies. They may also have incredible price volatility, with the value of your holdings potentially jumping or declining by huge margins in a single day. It’s also possible that a single crypto attack could result in permanent, unrecoverable loss. Hackers have been successful in stealing millions of dollars in bitcoins, and sometimes those thefts are not reimbursed by the compromised holders.

As for credit cards, you can buy and use temporary online (or physical) credit cards. Most credit card agencies offer temporary cards, often at slightly high fee rates, which can be used for a temporary set period of time or even one-time use. If a website gets compromised, exposing your temporary credit card, you won’t be at a loss because you’ll never use it again.

Secure file transfers. Probably the only class of applications that offer more alternatives than secure email is secure file transfer. Any program using SSH or SCP allows encrypted and secure file sharing, and there are dozens, if not hundreds, of commercial offerings.

Users who wish to securely share files while also preserving their anonymity have a myriad of choices. One of the most popular commercial services is BTGuard. It provides file anonymity services over the BitTorrent, a very popular peer-to-peer file sharing protocol.

Anything Phil Zimmerman creates. Phil Zimmermann, creator of Pretty Good Privacy (PGP), cares deeply about privacy. He was willing to risk being arrested, imprisoned, and even potentially faced the U.S. death penalty because he strongly believed that everyone on the planet deserved good privacy tools.

Every good and experienced computer security person I know and trust uses PGP. To work with PGP, each participant creates their own private/public key pair and shares their public key with other participants for securely sending files, emails, or other content.

Symantec bought and has supported PGP commercially since 2010, but dozens of open source versions are available and trusted, including OpenPGP. If you don’t have PGP, get it, install it, and use it.

Zimmermann, who was also behind Hushmail, is a co-founder of Silent Circle, which offers secure solutions for a range of technologies. It even offers the Blackphone, which was designed from the ground up to be the most secure, generally accessible cellphone ever. There have been some hacks of the Blackphone, but it still is the cellphone that prizes privacy and security above all other features -- at least as much as one can and still sell the product to the general population.

Whatever Phil Zimmermann creates or promotes can be assured to be well thought out, delivering privacy and security in spades.

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This story, "17 essential tools to protect your online identity, privacy" was originally published by InfoWorld.

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