Hiding your tracks from Trump: Online privacy worries heat up

In the face of a new administration, activists and regular people alike embrace tools for keeping their browsing habits and communications private.

Laura Hautala Former Senior Writer
Laura wrote about e-commerce and Amazon, and she occasionally covered cool science topics. Previously, she broke down cybersecurity and privacy issues for CNET readers. Laura is based in Tacoma, Washington, and was into sourdough before the pandemic.
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Laura Hautala
4 min read

Tech execs including (left to right) Amazon's CEO Jeff Bezos, Alphabet CEO Larry Page and Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg met with Vice President-elect Mike Pence, President-elect Donald Trump and investor Peter Thiel earlier this month.


There's something about a Donald Trump administration in charge of the US National Security Agency that has folks taking government surveillance very seriously.

Encrypted email provider ProtonMail and encrypted chat service Signal saw a spike in new users after the election. What's more, privacy advocates say they're hearing from more people who are interested in covering up their tracks online.

Eva Galperin, a global policy analyst at the privacy-oriented Electronic Frontier Foundation, said she's received more requests for trainings than usual since the election. Concerned internet users include journalists and activists, Galperin said. Driving these groups' fears is uncertainty over how an unpredictable Trump administration will handle its profound surveillance power.

"What protects most of us are just subjective norms," Galperin said. "The government didn't individually target people [with surveillance] because of subjective norms, but those change over time."

Whatever your reasons for wanting to keep your personal information, communications and browsing habits private, it's a complicated task.

Chat and email

Chat and email messages are the most straightforward to keep private, but even so, users have to pay close attention to make the tools work for them. Encrypted chat apps like WhatsApp, Signal and Wickr scramble up messages with end-to-end encryption. That means the app providers themselves can't read them, and therefore can't hand them over to the government. Other chat apps, including Facebook Messenger and Google's Allo, offer end-to-end encryption as an option, but it isn't a default setting.

But, your friends and contacts are most likely spread across these services, so you'll need multiple services to keep the conversation going. It's easy to lose track of which have encrypted messages as a default and which don't.

Still, privacy expert Serge Egelman said chat is light-years ahead of email when it comes to keeping messages private. The system for encrypting emails sent from any email provider -- called "Pretty Good Privacy" or PGP -- is cumbersome to put it mildly.

The system's "been around for the better part of 30 or 40 years," said Egelman, who directs usable security and privacy research at the International Computer Science Institute. "No one uses it because the tools are hard to use."

Browsing privately

Tools that prevent the government and others from tracking your web browsing history are out there. For example, the Firefox browser offers users a private browsing mode and the ability to tell websites not to track them. Mozilla won't have a record of your web browsing to give the government, but the websites you visit can still track your location and identity even if you ask them not to.

Chrome and Safari also offer private browsing modes. However, convenient features you don't even think about -- like cookies that keep you logged into your email account -- can evaporate when these settings are turned on.

The more extreme option is the Tor browser, which not only hides your IP address from the websites you visit but lets you access parts of the internet that might be blocked in your region. To use Tor in a part of the world with heavy internet censorship, you'll need to know how to configure the browser in a special way.

Social media

Social media is public, so that's your first obstacle if you're really trying to stay locked down. Galperin said she tells people who want to get into activism to keep their social media presences anonymous. That's easy to do on Twitter, but a bit trickier on Facebook, which requires users to give their real names.

Hiding your name isn't necessarily about the government but rather internet trolls, Galperin said. If other internet users want to stop you from speaking out against a government policy, for example, they can use your real name to figure out your home address and workplace and harass you in real life.

Some companies also scrape social media information and put it in their own highly searchable databases -- and sell access to law enforcement agencies. Some social media companies are pushing back on that trend, with Twitter revoking access to its software interface from companies that help collect social media data for law enforcement agencies.

What about the companies that collect your data?

Users might be the people with the least power over online privacy. With that in mind, the Electronic Frontier Foundation published an ad in Wired Magazine urging companies to do more to keep user data out of the government's hands.

Yahoo, Twitter, Facebook and Google declined to comment on whether they'll change any of their practices in advance of the transition to Trump's presidency. Microsoft and Apple didn't respond to requests for comment.

For its part, web browser company Mozilla is thinking about its privacy practices.

"When a new administration comes in, particularly one that has a new political view, it would be silly not to think about these issues," said Denelle Dixon-Thayer, chief legal and business officer at Mozilla.

But even though privacy concerns might be heightened for some now, Dixon-Thayer said companies need to work on securing their users' data every day.

"You're going to have lawful hacking by whatever government is in power," she said.