Configuring for security, privacy and convenience

Balancing security, privacy and convenience is not easy. I’ve spent quite a lot of time figuring out how to configure my various computer systems with this goal in mind.

Computers are supposed to make our lives more convenient and you sometimes have to trade privacy for convenience e.g. Outlook processing emails to allow you to use Focused Inbox. AI is going to bring a lot of productivity improvements but I always prefer when that is processed on device, as with Siri Suggestions for things like when to leave for an event.

You also have to consider your adversary.  There are reasonable steps you can take without seriously damaging convenience to provide safeguards against criminals and data profiling. But if you are trying to evade active government surveillance rather than just avoid being swept up in mass snooping, then things get significantly more difficult.

Targeted surveillance is, and should be, allowed (with appropriate legal safeguards). That is not what I’m trying to protect against here. Good security should be expected by all. Privacy is about having choice and control over your personal data.

Here’s how I approach it as of Oct 2018. I expect these practices to change over time. In no particular order:

  • Only use Apple mobile devices. They are the only company that builds privacy by design into their products. Their business model is to sell high priced hardware, not to sell your data. They have 5 year lifecycles on software updates which are delivered regularly, unlike Android which requires updates to go through carriers (usually delays by months, or forever). Buying direct from Google means giving up all your privacy. And the Apple model is to run as much computation on-device, whereas Google is the opposite – all processing is in their cloud environment, which is secure, but has no privacy.
  • Don’t get an Alexa device or Google Home. If you want a voice assistant, Apple’s HomePod with iOS 12 Shortcuts works very well.
  • iOS is the only secure OS that achieves the security, privacy and convenience balance. Any sensitive work should be restricted to iOS devices only. macOS is the next best option. If you don’t need convenience, use Tails.
  • Configure macOS and iOS for privacy. In particular, this means using full disk encryption and strong passwords.
  • Don’t use any Google services and be sure to pay for key services like email, calendar and file storage. If you’re not paying then your data is the product – you want a vendor who has a sustainable business model in selling the service/product itself, not your data. Running your own systems significantly reduces the security aspect of the balance, so it’s better to use either iCloud (if you don’t want your own domain), Microsoft Office365 (which is what I use) or Fastmail. For £10/m I get access to 1TB of OneDrive storage, Mail, Calendar and the full suite of Office products. I pay an extra £1.50/m on top of that for Advanced Threat Protection. Microsoft allows you to select the country where data is stored, has privacy by design and has a good record of defending against government access requests. The Outlook iOS app is actually very good but the Exchange protocol is supported by every client, so you have a good choice. Focused Inbox is great. Bigger corporates like Microsoft have significantly more resources to invest in security (which is why I prefer Office365 over Fastmail).
  • Unfortunately, Apple Maps is still rubbish compared to Google Maps. They’re generally comparable in major cities so I always prefer Apple Maps until the last-mile destination directions, where Apple Maps is regularly inaccurate. At that point I switch to Google Maps on iOS.
  • Don’t store anything unencrypted on cloud storage providers that you would be concerned about leaking if someone gained access. Encrypt these files individually. You can use gpg on Mac but it’s not especially user friendly. I prefer Keybase but it still requires using the command line. These files will be inaccessible on mobile so you may want to consider using 1Password document storage instead, for small files (they have a total storage limit of 1GB). Office files can be password protected themselves, which uses local AES encryption.
  • Delete files you don’t need any more and aren’t required to keep for tax records. In particular, set your email to delete all messages after a period – the shorter the better. I delete all my emails after 1 year. Configure macOS Finder Preferences to remove items from the Trash automatically after 30 days.
  • Don’t send attachments via email. You might delete your emails after a time but the recipients probably don’t. Instead, share them using an expiring link to online cloud storage.
  • Use a password manager and 2 factor authentication. These are just security basics.
  • Don’t use Google Chrome. Only use Safari or Firefox. Configure your browser to auto clear your history on a retention period that allows convenience but also privacy. I set mine to clear after 1 week. I’ve never needed to go back any further. Be sure the “Prevent cross-site tracking” option is configured in Safari settings.
  • Set up DuckDuckGo for your search provider on macOS and iOS. I’ve not used Google search for years.
  • Buy 1Blocker X for iOS and 1Blocker for macOS (see a comparison of other options) to block trackers and ads in Safari.
  • Set up Little Snitch outbound firewall and be sure you know which apps you’re approaching outbound internet access for.
  • Set up Micro Snitch to be notified whenever your mic and camera are in use. Cover your device cameras as a backup.
  • Don’t use SMS – disable fallback in iOS settings. WhatsApp encryption is good but all the metadata about who you are communicating with is shared with Facebook. Unfortunately, it has built up a considerable network effect so it is necessary to use it to communicate in the Western world. Few people use Signal, which is the best so  follow this guide to maximise WhatsApp privacy. iOS allows you to configure deleting iMessages after a period of time. I have mine set to delete after 30 days. You have to manually clear your WhatsApp conversations.
  • Don’t plug anything directly into any USB charging port in airports, hotels, or anywhere else. Use a USB data blocker adapter first.
  • Back up your files to cloud storage but only if they are encrypted locally first. Arq is a good tool to do this. Don’t use the same cloud storage as your main files e.g. I use OneDrive for my files and Amazon S3 for Arq backups.
  • Always use a VPN when connected to public wifi, or any network you don’t control, but don’t use a free VPN. This site has a good comparison but I use Encrypt.me on macOS and iOS. Encrypt.me is owned by StackPath, my current employer, so I know how all the internal infrastructure is set up i.e. we don’t log traffic. However, I also used it prior to joining StackPath and before Encrypt.me itself was acquired. Encrypt.me is a great consumer VPN but if you want more control and configuration options e.g. OpenVPN support, StrongVPN is another product from StackPath.
  • Change your DNS servers to use a privacy-first DNS provider, such as Cloudflare DNS. Do not use your default ISP DNS or Google DNS. If you have an OpenWRT router, configure it to use Cloudflare DNS over TLS because otherwise your ISP can still sniff your DNS requests.
  • Better yet, buy a router that allows you to configure DNS over TLS and connect to a VPN directly. I have a GL-AR750S configured to force all DNS over Cloudflare DNS over TLS and it is permanently connected to StrongVPN. This means all connections from home are encrypted before they even hit my ISP. The only downside is having to disconnect the VPN when using BBC iPlayer, because it detects the VPN. My wifi uses Mac whitelisting so only specific devices are allowed to connect.
  • Pay for Cifas protective registration and register your phone numbers on the TPS list.
  • Use Apple Pay wherever possible. The vendor doesn’t get access to any information about you and can only identify your payment information from a token specific to each transaction. This protects privacy and if the vendor is breached, your card details are safe. The usual contactless limit doesn’t apply to Apple Pay, which is limited only by your card limit.
  • Don’t buy Samsung TVs. There’s no need for any TV to connect to the internet so don’t connect them in the first place. Use a dedicated device like an Apple TV for your TV interface, it has a better UI anyway.
  • Be mindful of sharing photos online directly from your phone. They usually embed the location of the photo in the EXIF data.

Have I missed something? Let me know what else you’re doing.