Is there still privacy in the real world?

Privacy news
4 mins
How to achieve offline privacy

There are sensors and cameras everywhere, social convention dictates we carry what is essentially a surveillance device with us at all times, and passport regulation mandates that we identify and register ourselves wherever we go.

While surveillance largely happens electronically, it’s the physical reality where it affects us the most. It’s becoming more and more difficult to move around, consume, exercise, work, or even practice faith anonymously.

You are tracked relentlessly, everywhere you go

Your phone contains a GPS sensor that can collect very precise information about your whereabouts. This information is often directly uploaded to the cloud and shared with the apps installed on your phone, as well as their subsidiaries, partners, and advertising customers.

Even with GPS turned off, your cell phone provider can locate you to within a few meters by measuring your signal strength between antennas. This information is shared with law enforcement and is often available to hackers, too.

Tracked when you drive

If you drive, license plate readers make a record of your car’s whereabouts. These readers can be as small as a mobile phone and built from a few dozen dollars worth of equipment and open-source software.

Tracked when you walk

Similarly, but not as reliable yet is facial recognition software. Half a dozen of London boroughs, for example, have more security cameras than people. The cameras are pointed at sidewalks, doors and, usually, towards your face. In some places like Austria, it is already illegal to cover yourself up and avoid detection.

Tracked when you use public transport

Ride-sharing apps, like Lyft and Uber, require you to share your location and connect your account to a credit card bearing your legal identity. This information becomes available to your credit card company, bank, and government.

However, public transportation, where it exists, is probably still the most privacy-conscious form of motorized transportation. But public buses and taxis do have video surveillance and even microphones that record you and your conversations.

Here’s how to avoid location tracking:

If you’re worried about surveillance, you must leave your cell phone at home and ideally move around by bicycle or foot.

You could use glasses with bright infrared LED lights to blind CCTV cameras and fool facial recognition software—but this will not fool a human.

Are you a consumer? Then you are tracked

Everything you buy with a credit card will get recorded, shared, and analyzed. Cookies reveal which products you look at online and on your phone, and your apps may listen to what shows and music you listen to as you update your Facebook status.

Stores try to use points and rewards schemes to reveal our identity even when we pay with cash and also to link our various credit cards and mobile payment solutions together.

When shopping online, our email and postal addresses serve as identifiers even if paying with cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin.

Countries like Italy and France already forbid large cash payments. Depositing large, anonymous cash amounts into banks is also no longer an option due to money laundering rules, making it hard to pay for things like rent with cash.

Here’s how to avoid consumer tracking:

Don’t use credit cards—ever. Settle as many transactions as you can with cash. You may find that Bitcoin is an option to store money outside of the banking system and to make electronic transfers.

Your friends, family, and home give your identity away

Even if you follow all the above advice, your friends and family might still inadvertently compromise your Opsec. They might:

  • Upload your photos to a facial recognition database (such as Facebook)
  • Talk about you and your actions in unencrypted chats (such as WeChat)
  • Add your phone numbers to their address book and upload it (such as Whatsapp)
  • Forward encrypted information in unencrypted channels (such as email)
  • Record your conversations at home (such as with Alexa)
  • Film you or your car entering a driveway

There are many ways others can unintentionally record you and compromise your privacy, which is probably the most frustrating part of the future of offline privacy.

How to get online privacy

On the internet, privacy is far easier to accomplish. As long as you have a device you can trust, a fast internet connection, and a VPN, you can relatively easily achieve a high degree of online privacy.

While it has become easier to follow us around in the physical world, it has also become impossible for criminals and intrusive governments to stalk us online, intercept our communications and endanger our data.

Want more privacy in your life? Have a look at our guides:

How to completely disappear online
How to blow the whistle on your organization
How to use Bitcoin anonymously
How to communicate privately
How to use PGP encryption
How to use the TOR Network

Lexie is the blog's resident tech expert and gets excited about empowerment through technology, space travel, and pancakes with blueberries.