Simple ways to improve computer and smartphone security/privacy

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Riley Cox
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Joined: Thu Nov 19, 2020 5:48 am

Simple ways to improve computer and smartphone security/privacy

Post by Riley Cox » Sun Feb 28, 2021 11:15 pm

To sum this up:
Replace Windows and OSX with Mint or Ubuntu
Get a Google Pixel with GrapheneOS (if you can't give up your smartphone altogether)
Use a trustworthy VPN
Use a browser and search engine built for privacy
Use an encrypted email provider
Store all passwords in a dedicated, encrypted app


Linux is the only family of operating systems that allows one to use a computer connected to the Internet without automatically sending your data off to Big Tech. It is free, and luckily, it has also become a lot easier to use since the early days.

The best ones for beginners for general, everyday use are Mint and Ubuntu. Both are very user-friendly for people used to Macs and PCs, and there are a lot of free applications available for download that will take care of most people's needs. They are also both compatible with pretty much any hardware.

Perhaps the most difficult part of this process is that you have to create a bootable flash drive with your chosen Linux iso (free for download online from the Ubuntu, Mint etc. websites). For people who are fairly tech savvy this is trivial, but if you're not this description doesn't help much. There are tons of tutorials online, though. All it means is that you convert a regular old empty flash drive into a device that mimics a traditional installation disc using that iso (disk image) file. I believe you can buy an actual Linux install disc too, but the process to make a bootable flash drive is free and isn't super complicated. You'll just have to download the right software and follow the steps. For Windows it's called Rufus. I'm not sure what program you use on a Mac, but it's going to be the same basic process.

Once you've done that, then you just start the computer into the boot menu (by pressing some key specified by the computer manufacturer during startup), select the bootable drive, and then you can either choose to test or install the OS. The test allows you to run a live version and try it out without modifying anything, and installing will require that you wipe some or all of your hard drive to make room for Linux (which means you will need to back up all your important files to an external drive before proceeding with the installation). You can also partition the drive to have both Linux and some other OS like Windows, and then you can choose which one you want to use on startup. That's a bit more complicated and there's more to it than what I said here, but there are also lots of tutorials online for that. It's a good option if you need to be able to run certain apps that aren't available on Linux, but Linux should work just fine for almost everyone.

If this all still just sounds like gibberish, it's probably best to have someone who knows what they're doing take care of it themselves, or at least walk you through it.

It will take time getting used to the new OS, but with Big Tech cracking down on us, I think we're at a point where we all need to give up Microsoft, Apple, and Google for good.

One other important thing is that, when installing Linux on a PC, you will want to select the option to encrypt your drive, because otherwise there are ways to pull that unencrypted data off your drive without needing your password. You'll just want to make sure you keep the password and especially the recovery key recorded and well-hidden. If it's not hidden it obviously defeats the purpose, and if you forget the password and lose that recovery key, you can say goodbye to everything on your hard drive.

As for as smartphones, there are finally some good options that have sprung up in the past year or two. I'm getting a PinePhone, which runs mobile Linux, but this one is still deep in development. I might even have trouble with it, but I like tinkering, so that's why I got it. Anyway, the most stable Linux phone is probably a Nexus 5 running Ubuntu Touch, but the best recommendation I can make for most people who don't want to use the relatively limited Linux mobile phones would be to get a Google Pixel (specific recommended models are listed on the Graphene website) and then follow the steps to install GrapheneOS. It's a modified version of Android that has removed all Google tracking, and it is by far the best smartphone OS for privacy which sacrifices the least amount of utility and usability. If you can use an Android phone, you can use a Pixel with GrapheneOS.

Don't let the fact that it runs on a Google phone scare you. It's the OS that matters when it comes to Google's tracking, not the hardware. The downside (if you consider it a downside) is that you can't use any Google Play apps, but the whole point of this device is to get away from Google, so if that really bothers you then you probably aren't reading this. Anyway, GrapheneOS has its own open-source app store, and there are lots of good secure alternatives for Google apps available there.

It's necessary to point out here what these OSs don't do. All they do is remove the in-built data collection software. Not to minimize the value of that, but they don't prevent your ISP (or mobile carrier) from seeing and recording all the websites you visit, and the government can demand this information from them at any time, for any reason. For that, you would have to use a trustworthy VPN (and I cannot emphasize "trustworthy" enough, because if it is located in the US or another surveillance state, the government can pull your data from them just as easily as they can pull from your ISP), or you'd have to go through the TOR network, which is basically a multilayered, decentralized VPN, making it extremely powerful. Both options hide the websites you visit from your ISP, and they hide your IP from the websites themselves.

Also, GrapheneOS and mobile Linux does not stop your mobile carrier (or the government) from pinging your phone's location. Even having a dumb phone won't do that for you. The only way to prevent this tracking is to turn off the phone and remove the SIM card. The PinePhone is nice because it has a convenient kill switch for that, and also to turn off the mics and cameras. But, as I mentioned, it's not ready for general use. I'll be sure to inform everyone when it is.

Beyond all that, you want to use other privacy tools. The TOR browser is always the best for browsing because there is virtually no chance that even the most powerful intelligence agencies will ever see what you're doing on there regardless of the resources they employ (at the network layer, anyway, as the possibility of spyware still exists), but it's slow and probably overkill. Brave is one of the most popular normal privacy browsers, but I think a slightly better option is a modified version of Firefox. You'll also want to store all passwords on your computer in an encrypted app like NordPass, not in the browser itself. For encrypted email you'll want to use ProtonMail or something like it. For a trustworthy VPN (to prevent ISP and government data collection), NordVPN is one of the best.

As far as search engines go, there are a number of options, and I'm not so sure which is the best because they are pretty diverse, and it somewhat depends on what you want out of it. Also, I just haven't done a lot of research on this, but I'll get on it soon. Duckduckgo is popular, but it worries me because it's based in the US on Amazon servers and was created by a guy named Gabriel Weinberg. Metager or Swisscows are likely better.

More information on the options I've mentioned in the last two paragraphs is available at https://restoreprivacy.com/, in the drop-down menu under "Privacy Tools".

Even after all this, if the government really wants to get you, you're pretty much screwed, unless you pull the plug completely or start learning super advanced stuff. The government always has ways. Taking this level of threat seriously is getting into the territory of ridiculous paranoia for most people, but there's a reason guys like Snowden take the extreme precautions they do.

Anyway, if anyone has questions on any of this or related matters, I'm happy to elaborate. This is a little messy, but I just wanted to put all the information I've found over the past months and years here and maybe start a discussion about it.

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White Man 1
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Re: Simple ways to improve computer and smartphone security/privacy

Post by White Man 1 » Mon Mar 01, 2021 11:47 am

Fascinating, Riley. Your knowledge and ability to chase down answers makes you a valuable member of our team. About a decade ago I had some experience with Ubuntu. I would boot computers using it on a flash drive and always had good luck using it. Anymore I'm not so sure.

What I would really like to see is a cell phone optimized for privacy and security. If one isn't available for a decent price than maybe we could come up with something close and modify it to suit our needs.

Riley Cox
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Joined: Thu Nov 19, 2020 5:48 am

Re: Simple ways to improve computer and smartphone security/privacy

Post by Riley Cox » Mon Mar 01, 2021 6:45 pm

White Man 1 wrote:
Mon Mar 01, 2021 11:47 am
What I would really like to see is a cell phone optimized for privacy and security. If one isn't available for a decent price than maybe we could come up with something close and modify it to suit our needs.
That is what this GrapheneOS I mentioned is meant to do. It is very new, which is probably why you haven't heard of it. It is the first privacy-based Android OS that is out of development and fit for the masses. It's very user-friendly, especially for those who already use Android. There is no Google on it, the OS itself is free, and the Google Pixel 4a is only about $350 brand new (used it goes for as low is $200). That's a pretty small price to pay to have a very functional privacy-based smartphone. There are also other Pixels it can run on, but the 4a is the cheapest.

You do have to install GrapheneOS yourself, but clear instructions exist online. This is what I would recommend to our people who can't do without a smartphone.

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WhiteHealer
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Re: Simple ways to improve computer and smartphone security/privacy

Post by WhiteHealer » Sat Mar 06, 2021 1:13 pm

Linux has its own version of a smartphone that is user security minded. The Librem 5 runs any 1 of different Linux OS. It is moderately priced at $799. For a significant increase in price ($1,999) you can buy an all American made version with no Chinese made electronics other than the chassis. . There are of course downsides to this smartphone alternative and that is that not many apps are available. There are some extremely secure features that are on the phone like physical kill switches.

I am getting ready to order this phone, I will never do business with Apple or Android every again.

Ill provide a link for anyone interested.

https://puri.sm/products/librem-5-usa/


Whitehealer

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