If you use the Internet or a mobile phone, which in modern society is hard to avoid, your personal data and communications are constantly being collected and analyzed. From browsing histories, to emails to text messages, revealing information is sought by a variety of actors, including hackers, government spy agencies and the courts. It's hard to keep up with the new ways information thought to be private is leaking out. But there are a number of companies and volunteers building software tools that provide privacy for users around their electronic communications. And best of all, many of the basic versions are free.
Wickr: This San Francisco-based company's applications for Android and iOS have been gaining traction as a safer alternative to SMSs that are stored by operators. Messages and content such as files and photos can be tagged with an expiration date after which they're thoroughly erased from the recipient's device. Only encrypted content passes on the wire, and encryption and decryption takes place on users' devices. Basic messaging via Wickr is free.
MaskMe: This free extension for Google's Chrome browser and Firefox is a multi-prong privacy tool. It generates "disposable" email addresses that users can supply for website registrations if they don't want to hand over their real one. Emails are forwarded to a person's main address but can be shut off if spammy ones arrive. It also has a login and password manager that is one of the best around as well as a strong password generator. Abine, which built MaskMe, offers a $5 a month subscription service for other masking features, such as the ability to supply a one-time disposable credit card number and alternative phone number that diverts calls to your real number.
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Ghostery: Tracking Internet browsing is crucial for delivering targeted advertising but also has grown more sophisticated, prevalent and invasive than most users realize. Ghostery, which is free, is an extension for the major Web browsers that records who is tracking your Web activity through cookies, Web bugs, pixels and beacons. It provides information on the entities that are doing the tracking and users have the option of instructing Ghostery to block the activity in the future.
DuckDuckGo: A person's search history can be enormously revealing. In 2006, the New York Times identified a specific person based on their analysis of a data set from AOL thought to have been sufficiently made anonymous. Search engines customarily retain this kind of data for some time to improve their technology, but in the wrong hands, it at best could be embarrassing and at worst, dangerous. DuckDuckGo has steadily gained popularity as an alternative. It doesn't record a person's search terms or pass them along to the site a person visits. It also doesn't record a browser's user agent string, a batch of information about software the computer is running, or the computer's IP address, which can, in some instances, be linked back to a specific computer.
GPG Suite: It's never been terribly easy for lay people to set up using encrypted email, but the GPG Suite makes it about as simple as it's going to get. The Mac-only software suite lets people set up a pair of private and public encryption keys in order to send scrambled email to other people. It works with Apple's Mail program, and once set up, an encrypted message can be sent by simply clicking a lock. The GPG Keychain Access component is used to search for and store another person's public key, as well as import and export keys. The group behind the suite, GPGTools, finances the project through donations, payable by credit card, PayPal or bitcoin.