You might have heard people say “it’s only important to avoid internet surveillance if you have something to hide.” Or, if governments or marketing agencies want to look through your boring data, the joke’s on them.
It would be a sound argument if organizations weren’t using your data to exploit you. The sad truth is governments harvest your data and use it to influence your decisions. Marketing agencies use it to design targeted advertising campaigns to “hack” your brain and get you to buy products you often don’t need.
If you agree this is overstepping the line, it’s time to learn how to prevent internet surveillance. In this article, I’ll cover everything you need to know about internet surveillance. This includes what it is, who’s doing it, and how to avoid it.
What Is Internet Surveillance?
Internet surveillance means tracking, monitoring, and collecting data from internet users. This includes data about your browsing habits, search history, and social interactions. It’s often done through cookies and browser fingerprinting.
Governments and corporations practice internet surveillance for different reasons. Governments say they watch over citizens to prevent terrorism and combat child abuse. Yet, in contrast to the innocent intentions governments claim to have, whistleblowers report governments often spy on people without due cause.
Sometimes, authorities use internet surveillance as a censorship tool to stomp out political opposition. While this was once a hallmark of regimes like North Korea, China, and Russia, we’re now seeing what the University of Michigan describes as “extremely aggressive internet censorship” in democratic countries.
Authorities often cite fighting disinformation as the main reason for censorship. The problem is, when only one side gets to decide what constitutes disinformation, it can be a slippery slope. Once people have the power to control information, it might be difficult for them to resist using it for their own benefit.
Contrary to its democratic reputation, the European Union proposed new rules to restrict political advertising. Some worry these will be wielded for corruption and threaten free speech.
Aside from governments, advertising agencies harvest your data to sell it for profit. The more data companies have about you, the easier it is to create targeted marketing strategies. When they know your preferences, they tailor marketing efforts around them, making you more likely to buy their products.
I’m not saying governments shouldn’t have any insight into citizen life, or marketing companies shouldn’t have knowledge about consumers. However, we need to know exactly who invades our privacy and why, as well as have the option to definitively say no.
Surveillance has a chilling effect on freedom of expression and human rights. Authoritarian governments use surveillance to suppress opposition — destroying freedom’s beauty in their wake.
Common Types of Internet Surveillance
ISP tracking is when your internet network provider tracks your online activity. If governments request your data from them, they’ll usually hand it straight over. While this is supposed to stop criminals, it’s not nice knowing governments can freely access your browsing activity without due cause or judicial consent.
In most countries, ISPs have a legal obligation to keep user data for a certain period. Your ISP can access:
- Your browsing history and habits
- Visited websites
- Your location
- Shopping habits and online purchase history
- Your IP address
- Which devices you use
- How long you spend on sites
You can use a VPN to avoid internet surveillance by your ISP. VPNs conceal your activity from ISPs by rerouting your internet traffic through a secure server. When you use a VPN, your ISP can’t see what you’re doing or pass your data on to anyone else.
CyberGhost VPN offers private browsing and ensures nobody can read your network traffic. We use military-grade VPN encryption to conceal your online activity and keep away from prying eyes. Get CyberGhost VPN and prevent internet surveillance.
Digital fingerprinting constructs a unique digital identifier from your browser and device characteristics. Digital fingerprinting has two major facets: browser fingerprinting and device fingerprinting.
- Browser fingerprinting uses your unique browser configurations to identify you. This includes your location, plugins, extensions, browser settings, language preferences, and much more.
- Device fingerprinting uses information about your device. This includes your computer model, screen resolution, memory capacity, apps, and more.
You might be wondering how accurate digital fingerprinting is. Well, according to an NIST study, digital fingerprinting can identify you with 99% accuracy — yes, it’s terrifying. If you want to know how to prevent digital fingerprinting, see our complete guide.
Social Media Surveillance
Social media platforms are massive culprits for data harvesting. Companies under Meta’s umbrella are often called out for sketchy data practices. You won’t be surprised to know its new VR headset is no exception to Meta’s aggressive tracking motif.
Unfortunately, TikTok isn’t excluded from this trend either. The Chinese app is so invasive many countries have banned it on officials’ devices.
Search Engine Surveillance
Google (and other search engines) also track everything you do online and systemically use the information for their own benefit. Your search and purchase history speaks volumes about your preferences, and they can sell this information for a very pretty penny or use it to train their own systems.
Of course, governments have a stake in knowing what citizens are up to. Governments have always kept watchful eyes on people, especially if they were a suspect of some kind.
However, the digital era provides authorities with an up close and personal look at citizens. With the ability to tap into digital devices, they can see what you’re up to online, hear your conversations, and even watch you through device cameras.
Government Surveillance Programs Worldwide
While I’m not against governments using ethical means to catch criminals, I don’t think they have any excuse for spying on regular citizens without cause. But the cold truth is, they still do it. Authorities on all continents are guilty of spying on individuals — here are some examples.
The PRISM Program
When Edward Snowden blew the whistle, he ousted the NSA illegal mass surveillance programs. It shocked the world to know how invasive and pervading government surveillance can be in the land of the free.
He publically detailed the PRISM program which lets governments spy on foreign citizens using data from Facebook, Google, YouTube, Microsoft, and Apple.
In spite of his fervor and willingness to risk his life, the alarm he triggered slowly and the public got used to the “new normal”. Nobody was held accountable and no significant rectification took place; soon enough, it was business as usual.
The Great Firewall of China
The Great Firewall of China is a censorship system the Chinese government uses to control and censor citizens’ online activity – it blocks access to content the government deems objectionable. This includes international news sites, social media platforms, and search engines.
The firewall also monitors and filters the country’s internal internet traffic. This prevents people from sharing information freely or engaging in political dissent.
The UK’s Online Safety Bill
The Online Safety Bill in the UK is set to come into effect in late 2023. Given how it will remove privacy rights from normal citizens, it’s become the center of much political controversy. Many privacy-focused companies like Signal fear they’ll have to cease UK operations if the bill undermines encryption.
The UK government claims it’s a move to protect children and prevent terrorism. This rhetoric is all too familiar, especially if you’re from the US.
Internet Privacy Statistics You Should Know
Most online activity is subject to some kind of tracking. Whether you read an article or watch funny cat videos, your activity stays in cyberspace records and can be retrieved at any time.
Accepting cookies and using Google’s handy tools is so commonplace in today’s digital world, we rarely stop to think about the privacy consequences. Here are a few stats to give you an idea of the chaos around data privacy:
- 74% of consumers feel they’ve little control over how their personal information is collected (PRNewswire)
- 81% of internet users say the potential risks they face from companies collecting data outweigh the benefits (Pew Research)
- 67% of US netizens don’t know about privacy and data protection regulations (Washington University in St. Louis)
- Cyberattacks happen every 39 seconds (University of Maryland)
- 75% of Americans would like more regulations to protect them against unauthorized data collection (CNN)
- 63% of internet users think most companies are not transparent with data use (Public Tableau).
Concerned about your online privacy? Use CyberGhost VPN and enhance your anti-surveillance toolkit. Our VPN masks your IP address and assigns you a new one to shield your location from snoopers. It also cloaks your online activity so nobody on your network can see what you’re doing.
Internet Privacy Laws Around the World
According to the United Nations, out of 194 countries, 137 countries have internet privacy laws to protect users from companies collecting their data. Here’s a summary of some of the most notable privacy laws around the world:
- The General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). This EU law is the most stringent internet privacy and security law. It applies to how companies worldwide collect data from European citizens. Among other things, the GDPR states consumers must consent to information collection.
- The Data Protection Act 2018. This UK law holds people and companies responsible for how they use people’s data. It indicates it must be used lawfully, transparently, and in a non-harmful way.
- Privacy Laws in the US. At present, the US has a range of cluttered privacy laws which differ between states. For example, California has quite comprehensive data privacy laws like the California Consumer Privacy Act of 2018. By contrast, Florida doesn’t even require websites to post privacy policies.
It may be comforting to know governments do put some effort into protecting your internet privacy. However, as demonstrated by scandals like Cambridge Analytica and Edward Snowden, governments are often guilty of breaking their own laws.
Pro tip: If you want to prevent surveillance, you need to take action yourself. It’s definitely worth using a VPN to encrypt your internet traffic, hiding it from snoopers and unlawful surveillance. Get CyberGhost VPN and bypass internet surveillance.
What Types Of Personal Data Should You Protect?
Here’s a list of the types of data most people want to harvest. Together, they reflect a lot about a person and more than a few people are fighting tooth and nail to get their hands on it.
- ⚠️ Personally Identifiable Information (PII). This includes personal information like your name, date of birth, address, phone number, or email address. It can also include your social service number or marital status. Cybercriminals use this information to commit identity theft — so guard it well.
- ⚠️ Browsing habits and website visits. From website visits to how long you spend watching videos, marketers use this information to profile you. And worse, hackers use it to find ways to lure you into malicious traps.
- ⚠️ Financial information. Whether it’s your PayPal account or online login credentials, this information is security-sensitive and highly sought after.
- ⚠️ Biometric data. This includes fingerprints, facial scans, and retinal images. People can use this data to impersonate you and steal your identity. It also directly links you to your online activity.
A Complete Guide to Avoiding Internet Surveillance
Can you really be 100% anonymous? Not while living a normal life. But you can do a lot to hinder hackers, ruthless marketers, and unlawful surveillance.
I’ve put together a list of tips to help you safeguard your online privacy. Hopefully, it helps you regain control of what ISPs, governments, and unrelenting advertisers have access to.
1. Take Security Precautions
Having strong security on your devices makes it harder for people to infiltrate them. Keep your devices up-to-date and use an anti-malware system. Software updates fix bugs and patch cybersecurity vulnerabilities leaving you exposed. Your anti-malware system also scans for and removes potential threats on your device.
2. Use Private Browsers
According to HubSpot, Google handles more than 90% of global internet queries. As they hog the internet market, it can be easy to forget other browsers and search engines even exist.
In exchange for being an ultra handy know-it-all, Google harvests massive amounts of data — often outside legal boundaries. The company faces regular class-action lawsuits for violating internet privacy law.
It may be convenient, but it’s far from private. Here’s a list of alternative privacy-focused browsers — in case Google’s starting to turn your stomach.
- Brave (fastest). As an anti-fingerprinting, privacy-focused browser, Brave is a good choice if you care about protecting data. It also allows you to earn cryptocurrency as you browse which you can then choose to donate to unassuming creators. The browser is a good choice for internet privacy-concerned surfers looking to cover their tracks.
- Tor (most private). Often confused with the Dark Web, the Tor browser offers maximum privacy by rerouting your traffic through a series of routers. This makes it tough to link your activity back to you. The most privacy-conscious people use it, including journalists, activists, and whistleblowers. The downside? It’s pretty slow.
- Mozilla Firefox (fast & private). One of the few popular browsers that does not rely on Google’s Chromium engine. Firefox is built and maintained by a non-profit whose main goal is internet privacy.
- AXplorer. This privacy browser is built on Chromium and features its own cryptocurrency. It has many similarities with the Brave browser, but AXplorer has its own built-in VPN as an extra privacy measure. However, the VPN is free, so has some limitations.
3. Use Privacy Extensions
Privacy browser extensions add extra online security and privacy, letting you customize your browsing experience and block pesky ads. They can also help protect you from malware or limit tracking and data collection.
Here’s a list of some of the best privacy extensions.
- CyberGhost VPN Cookie Cleaner. CyberGhost VPN offers a free cookie-cleaning browser extension, allowing you to clear cookies in a single click.
- HTTPS Everywhere. Created with the Tor Project, this security extension extends HTTPS encryption to all websites — even to those without it. This improves your security, encrypting the communication between you and all websites.
- NoScript Security Suite. This free and open-source extension for web browsers which works with Mozilla, Firefox, and Chromium-based browsers. It enhances browsing security and privacy by preventing scripts from collecting data about web pages.
4. DeGoogle Your Devices
If you think Google uses convenience to invade your privacy — I agree with you. While Google products are useful to have, using them costs you your privacy. Google knows everything about you and while society normalizes it, I don’t think it’s right.
Google says it uses data to “deliver better services, make improvements, and customize your experience.” That all sounds nice, but they fail to mention how much they make by exploiting your data, or how much they spend every year to settle privacy violations.Maybe it’s time to deGoogle your device and put a stop to invasive data tracking.
5. Avoid Social Media
Social media platforms encourage self-surveillance, and they also collect monumental amounts of your data. This is especially true for Meta’s platforms (Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp). All of these companies face countless class-action lawsuits for privacy violation and covertly influencing political decisions for major elections.
Check out CyberGhost VPN’s Guide to Social Media Privacy to learn how to prevent platforms from collecting excessive data from you. Otherwise, consider getting off social media altogether.
You might think you’ll miss out and lose connection with people. But I always say, if it’s worth staying in contact with someone, you’ll find a way.
6. Use a Password Manager
With so many accounts, passwords quickly become tough to keep track of. Google Chrome offers a password manager, but if it experiences another data breach, it could expose your passwords. Use a password manager like RoboForm or Keeper to safeguard your login credentials.
You can also opt to use stronger passwords so they aren’t easy to guess. You’ll want to change your passwords regularly and avoid using the same password for every account. This limits potential damage if someone gets hold of one of your passwords.
7. Use Two-factor Authentication
Two-factor authentication (2FA) requires two forms of verification to log in. This often involves security questions, biometrics, or SMS verification alongside a password. 2FA makes it harder for a hacker to get into your account, because even if they know your password, it’s unlikely they can fulfill the second verification step.
8. Switch to Linux
One effective way to prevent internet surveillance is switching to the Linux operating system. Linux is more secure by design since it gives you root control over your device. It’s also more customizable and the security is built from the ground up.
That said, Linux is still somewhat to get accustomed to. Even though distributions like Ubuntu and Linux Mint have come a long way, the OS is still less user-friendly than other operating systems and requires a bit of Googling on occasion.
You can find plenty of resources online to get started if you’re into it. The time investment pays off in terms of security and privacy. Overall, using Linux is an excellent way to enhance your digital privacy — if you’re dedicated enough to learn.
9. Encrypt Online Communication
Messenger apps like Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp aren’t fully private. While WhatsApp never tires of touting its end-to-end encryption, it still collects metadata about you.
Think nobody can see your WhatsApp conversations? Think again. The Rolling Stones Magazine reported leaked FBI documents. In said documents, the bureau brags about how easy it is to intercept your WhatsApp conversations.
Here are some privacy-friendly Messenger alternatives to help you secure your online privacy:
- Tox. This decentralized messenger uses powerful encryption to ensure privacy. Due to not having central servers, government agencies can’t raid or infiltrate them. It’s the perfect messenger for activists or journalists reporting on dangerous issues.
10. Use a VPN
You might be wondering “what is a VPN?” A VPN masks your IP address and assigns you a new one when you connect to a server. VPNs also encrypt your internet traffic rerouting it through a secure tunnel. This makes it harder for your people to link your online activity back to you.
CyberGhost VPN uses military-grade encryption, so you won’t need to worry about data leaking into the wrong hands. Our VPN also keeps you safe from Wi-Fi attacks and makes reading your traffic virtually impossible.
CyberGhost VPN is staunchly against surveillance and we exercise a strict No Logs policy. This means we never track or log your activity. Even if authorities requested it, we can’t share your data — because we don’t have it. We also publish a full overview of these requests in our quarterly transparency reports.
11. Purchase With Cryptocurrency
Crypto transactions are pseudonymous which means when you buy with cryptocurrency, your identity isn’t linked to the transaction. The anonymity is useful if you want to keep your purchases private. It also stops pesky advertisers from knowing everything about your purchasing habits.
Say No To Surveillance: Your Privacy Matters
Surveillance is a growing concern for people everywhere. Between social media platforms ruthlessly invading your digital space, search engines storing all your activity, and governments implementing laws to diminish privacy, it’s hard to know how to defend yourself.
Worryingly, most people don’t know how organizations handle their personal data. With an increasing number of cases against large corporations and governments misusing data, privacy’s never mattered more.
To gain better control over your online privacy, it’s worth switching to privacy-focused browsers like Brave or DuckDuckGo instead of Google. You may also wish to get rid of social media apps from your phone and only use them on a privacy-focused desktop browser.
The best way to protect your online privacy and avoid surveillance is with a VPN. CyberGhost VPN encrypts your traffic, shielding it from surveillance tactics. The unbreakable code is inaccessible to anyone, so snoopers can’t see what you’re doing online, log your data, or monitor your browsing habits.
Internet surveillance is the monitoring of data and traffic on the Internet. Governments and marketing agencies collect data about your browsing habits, interests, and location. VPNs help you avoid internet surveillance by encrypting your data so other people can’t read it.
VPNs also assign your device to a new IP address, making it difficult for people to trace your internet activity back to you.
Local authorities typically need a reason and court warrant to intercept your internet traffic. However, we’ve seen cases of law enforcement doing this without legal permission before. Most governments engage in some kind of internet surveillance and some even work together as a surveillance alliance. Use CyberGhost VPN and protect yourself from unethical internet surveillance.
While it’s not possible to be 100% anonymous, you can make a significant difference to your internet privacy by using a VPN and following our guide to avoiding internet surveillance.
Yes, CyberGhost VPN encrypts your internet traffic and reroutes it to another server. It also masks your IP address so your activity can’t be traced back to you. That way, you can avoid digital surveillance and stay undetected online.