All I want for Christmas is Privacy

By Theresa Stadler - December 19, 2018

As we begin to head home for the holidays, we’ve started to think about the annual family debate under the Christmas tree, and we’re betting that data privacy is going to be a hot topic this year. At Privitar we work on solving some of the hardest challenges in data privacy, such as enabling safe data analytics and the secondary usage of big data. But data privacy extends far beyond the privacy problems arising in the context of data analytics.

So we’ve put together a wishlist for a private Christmas, that outlines some of the greatest threats to individual privacy in today’s information age, and how you can protect yourself and your family against them. These top tips are sure to make you a big hit at the Christmas dinner table this year!

A wishlist for a private Christmas

(...which you should have, even if you don’t believe in Santa or celebrate Christmas!)

Secure communication

What to say at the Christmas family dinner: Most of our conversations are now happening online. Which means much of what we say can be recorded and analysed. But it’s not only the content of what we are saying that is sensitive. Often the much bigger risk is metadata collection. It’s a bigger privacy threat because many of us are not even aware of it happening, and because the potential private information leakage is not as obvious as message content. Most of us will consider it a clear invasion of privacy if every topic we’ve mentioned in a WhatsApp conversation is broadcast to online advertisers. But it’s harder to understand the possible impact it can have if someone learns whom we’ve called and the number of times we’ve picked up our phone.

What you need to put on your wishlist?

💬 A secure instant messenger app like Signal 💬

Protects against...

  • Santa learning to whom you’ve been talking
  • Santa learning that you’ve mentioned some sensitive topics like health related issues
  • Santa learning how often you’ve been calling your dad


How easy is it for Santa to provide...

  • Very easy to use if you’re already using instant messaging apps
  • Free and available for both Android and iOS


A great Christmas present for...

  • Literally everyone including your granny (if she has already mastered WhatsApp she’ll get used to a different set of emojis)


Christmas present factor... Five Privistars! ⭐⭐⭐⭐🌟

📨 A secure mail provider like ProtonMail 📨

Protects against...

  • Santa learning that you’ve mentioned some sensitive topics like health related issues
  • Santa learning that you’re the whistleblower


How easy is it for Santa to provide...

  • Easy to set up and a basic, free account version available
  • A bit of effort for Santa to update all of your contact information


A great Christmas present for...

  • A must have for a privacy engineer
  • Nearly everyone but maybe not as relevant as a secure instant messenger - most people tend not to send around too much sensitive information via mail


Christmas present factor... Four Privistars! ⭐⭐⭐⭐

Private browsing

What to say at the Christmas family dinner: Not only our conversations, but many other parts of our lives have moved online. We use the internet to buy Christmas presents (What?! It’s not the elves in Santa’s Christmas factories?); search for information about health issues and health care providers; find the address of restaurants and bars close to our homes; look at the job market when we want to change jobs; and plan our travels - to name but a few. And we tend to put unfiltered thought into search engines — even more unfiltered than text messages - which makes search histories particularly sensitive.
All of this information, the keywords we searched for, the websites we visited, the time we spent online, can be used to get a pretty detailed profile of who we are, what we are interested in and what’s going on in our lives. Even though the actual private information is mostly derived, it does not make it less sensitive.

What you need to put on your wishlist?

🔍 A private default search engine like DuckDuckGo 🔍

Protects against...

  • Santa learning what kind of health issues you are currently dealing with
  • Santa learning what you are planning to buy your mum for Christmas
  • Santa learning where you live or work after you’ve searched for “best breakfast place for Christmas hangover near Waterloo”


How easy is it for Santa to provide...

  • Very easy: you simply need to go the settings of the browser of your choice and change the default search engine
  • The performance of privacy-preserving search engines has improved massively over the last few years so there’s only little trade-off


A great Christmas present for...

  • The whole family and all of your friends


Christmas present factor... Five Privistars🌟

💻 A privacy-preserving browser 💻

Protects against...

  • Santa learning that you’ve been online in the middle of the night
  • Santa being able to track you across every single site that you’ve visited
  • Santa linking all your browsing history to your personal text messages


How easy is it for Santa to provide...

  • That depends on how much privacy you want
  • If you decide to switch from Chrome to Firefox it will be a simple change
  • If you want to go all the way and start using Tor there’s a substantial setup effort required


A great Christmas present for...

  • There’s a version for everyone
  • Will provide a substantial improvement in quality of life for everyone around you who is still using Internet Explorer (Firefox)
  • Is the right choice for anyone annoyed by online advertising giants having a monopoly on their data (Brave)
  • For your tinfoil hat, privacy-obsessed friends (Tor)


Christmas present factor... Five Privistars🌟

🕵️ A VPN like ProtonVPN 🕵️

Protects against...

  • Santa giving a government agency access to your web traffic logs
  • Santa’s censorship of certain websites


How easy is it for Santa to provide...

  • It’s not easy to find the right one
  • Most good ones are pay-for
  • Once you have installed a VPN with a good UI, it’s very easy to use
  • Might have recognisable impact on speed (and Netflix blocks VPN IPs)


A great Christmas present for...

  • People who are at risk of government surveillance in particular
  • People living in regions with strict censorship rules
  • Probably not your parents but anyone more or less technical


Christmas present factor... Three Privistars

📱 A privacy-preserving mobile browser like Firefox Focus 📱

Protects against...

  • The same privacy attacks as your normal web browser
  • Santa getting access to your location trace


How easy is it for Santa to provide...

  • Easy and free to download
  • Not the most convenient to use with services that require you to log in


A great Christmas present for...

  • Friends and family so you can play a fun privacy game over Christmas: Who finds the website with the most ad trackers?


Christmas present factor... Four Privistars⭐⭐

Data minimisation

What to say at the Christmas family dinner: There is a way to mitigate the risk of a privacy breach and its resulting harms, that doesn’t actually require you to get anything new for Christmas. All you need to do is make sure that the apps that you’re using only have access to the information they really need. Is it useful for CityMapper to know your location? Probably. Does a torch app need access to your GPS coordinates and your WiFi? Unlikely. And the same holds for all of your online accounts. Since GDPR there is a requirement for online service providers, like Google, to give you better and more fine-grained control over your privacy and security settings. It’s still not trivial to get an overview over the different setting options, to understand where we need to explicitly opt-out, and what impact that will have on the service that we receive. But it is worth trying because data minimisation can significantly reduce the impact of a data breach.

What you need to put on your wishlist?

ℹ️ Updated privacy settings in all of your apps ℹ️

Protects against...

  • Santa having all that sensitive information on you in the first place
  • Santa tracking your location as you move around
  • Santa knowing when you’ve left the Christmas party

How easy is it for Santa to provide

  • It takes a bit of time to set up the first time, but once you’ve done that, it doesn’t take much effort each you install a new app It’s much easier on an iPhone than on an Android device


A great Christmas present for

  • Everyone, but some people might need your help


Christmas present factor... 
Five Privistars🌟

📄 Patience for reading privacy policies 📄

Protects against...

  • Santa knowing things about you that you thought were kept private


How easy is it for Santa to provide...

  • Since GDPR, it’s much easier than you’d think
  • Very easy for your Google account, but still complicated for some other services


A great Christmas present for...

  • Everyone who has a Google account…
  • … so everyone. Including your one year old nephew probably!


Christmas present factor... 
Five Privistars🌟

📊 An app that helps you to control what data you share 📊

Protects against...

  • Santa collecting more data on you than you know
  • Santa using your data for purposes you weren’t aware of


How easy is it for Santa to provide...

  • They’re mostly free
  • There are various services and apps that aim to give the user control over personal data sharing
  • Require some expertise and thinking on the user side about what data to share with whom and what for


A great Christmas present for...

  • Everyone who has an aversion against tech giants making profit with privacy-invasive business models (People.io)
  • Everyone who ever had one of their devices breached (Lookout Personal)


Christmas present factor... Four Privistars

Data security

What to say at the Christmas family dinner: There’s no data privacy without data security. This is why thinking about ways to protect your privacy should always be accompanied by a thought about security. If you use the same password for all of your accounts - from your mail provider to online retailers - then it’s unlikely that you’ll be able to protect your privacy if that password is leaked.

Data Security

What you need to put on your wishlist?

🔒 An explanation for what makes a password secure 🔒

Protects against...

  • Santa being able to guess your password within a few hours


How easy is it for Santa to provide...

  • It can be hard to convince your family that special characters will not make a password more secure despite what they’ve been told for years.
  • It’s easy because it’s much harder to remember a long sequence of random strings than three random words

A great Christmas present for

  • Everyone whose life you want to make easier


Christmas present factor... Five Privistars🌟

🔑 A secure password manager like 1Password 🔑

Protects against...

  • Santa hacking your list of passwords that you keep in an unencrypted note
  • Santa guessing the one password you use across all of your accounts


How easy is it for Santa to provide...

  • Most really good ones are pay-for
  • It should ensure that you have access to your passwords from all of your devices


A great Christmas present for...

  • More technical people who want to get the best password security possible


Christmas present factor... 
Four Privistars

Happy (private) holidays from everyone at Privitar!

The information contained in this blog is provided only as general information, which we hope is helpful, however full disclaimers apply. The inclusion of links from this site does not imply endorsement or support of any of the linked information, services, products, or providers.