How Transgender People Can Protect Their Privacy Online

According to research undertaken by the National Centre of Transgender Equality in the United States, cyberbullying is a significant problem for everyone in the LGBT community. Their study found that there was a particular issue among transgender people. Although just under half of those questioned reported some kind of physical abuse in the past, over two-thirds of transgender people responded that they had been bullied online. In 2017, Mermaids UK, a charity that supports families and individuals around transgender issues, reported a sharp upturn in online attacks. These were reported to the Police and tended to come in the form of uninformed and harassing comments on social media.

Although the authorities can act under hate crime legislation when serious incidents occur, transgender people can still feel exposed to invasions of their privacy online on an almost daily basis. Redressing wrongdoing after it has occurred is one thing, but what can transgender people do about avoiding such cyberbullying in the first place? One of the key things is to protect your online privacy. Anyone using the internet to communicate should take their personal privacy seriously. However, for transgender people – and the LGBT community as a whole – issues surrounding online privacy are even more important given the prevalence of bullying that unfortunately goes on. Read on to discover some practical measures that you can put in place today to protect your online identity or that of someone you care about.

It Is Time to Ditch Google

Google has been the front-runner with internet searches for years. The dominant player with internet search history, their analytical data is supplied to advertisers and third parties which makes it easy for organisations to get an idea of what sort of individual you are just from looking at what you happen to be browsing. Have you ever noticed how banner adverts on web pages you visit seem to relate to your recent searches on Google? If you add to this the amount of data that is collected from Google’s browser service, Chrome, then you can see just how much personal information might be swept up from this internet giant.

Of course, no one is suggesting that collecting data about users is in itself a direct cause of cyberbullying. However, if you want to be more anonymous on the internet and only share information with people you know and trust, then ditching Google for your searches and your web browsing is a good idea. Delete Google accounts, like Gmail, and uninstall Chrome. There are plenty of other internet search engines that do a really good job these days and which don’t collate data in the same way that Google does. If you do, then when you use your computer in a public place you will be less exposed to ads and items being suggested which might refer to your gender identity that could potentially make you a target for bullying or unwarranted comments.

Use a Virtual Private Network

A virtual private network, or VPN, is a means by which your computer can connect with others over the internet as though they were talking to one another on a secure local area network, or LAN. This means that information that is passed back and forth between each of the devices is encrypted to a much higher level than you would otherwise achieve. It is ideal for anyone who wants to increase the level of privacy they have online. It should be said, however, that VPNs never make anyone totally private when they are using the internet to visit sites or to communicate – they only augment the security measures you already have in place.

VPN providers tend to operate from jurisdictions that are more friendly to online privacy than you would find in the UK, the EU or North America. As such they tend to be found in places like the British Virgin Islands, Panama or Switzerland. Nevertheless, there are good VPN providers in the UK and the US which only hold on to the legally required minimum of data, such as logging metadata, for example. When you use a VPN, you simply connect to a server in a given location – usually, one that is not too far away from where you happen to be. This server then connects to the onward destination, for example, a transgender chat room or information site. Using one makes it much harder for the authorities in your country and hackers to see what you are looking at, who you are talking to or what you are saying. Some people who are interested in operating in a private way online use them routinely for everything they do on the internet. A subscription fee is commonly levied to use a VPN on a regular basis, however. Here at Trans Unite, we use the Protonmail VPN. We also use this service to encrypt all our emails.

Consider a Burner Number & Secondary Email Account

When you think of “burner” phone numbers, the KGB and crime syndicates probably spring to mind. But there are plenty of reasons a secondary phone number can come in useful for the everyday person. They are particularly well suited whenever you might need to share your details online but don’t want to give out your personal number used by friends and family.

It’s recommended to use a secondary email or phone number whenever you’re using dating or chat apps. If you decided that the person you’re talking to is safe enough to move the conversation outside of the dating app chat function, you still might not want to share your personal email or phone number with them.  Here you have two options, using an app like Burner gives you a temporary and alternative phone number but you may also want to consider using a dual SIM phone and pairing it with a cheap sim only deal (approximately £5 at the time of writing) to share with potential dates.  As long as it’s not your personal email or number you’re giving out, you still have a layer of privacy between you and new people and you can always ditch the email or sim card if it falls into the wrong hands.

Avoid Listening Devices

There has been an upturn in the number of voice-activated home assistants in recent years. Although the artificial intelligence at play with such systems is remarkably effective, any device that is listening to your voice commands is also listening to you when you might assume it is not. Speaking frankly about yourself and your gender identity with such a device in earshot means that data is being collected about you, some of which you might understandably prefer to remain private.

These devices are cleverly marketed as being convenient to use and offering a service that means you can keep your hands free. However, the dark side of them is that data harvested from your private conversations may be sold on to third parties. If someone is able to hack this data, then it could be published on the internet for all to see. Remember that listening devices are not just things like Google Home or Amazon Echo but also voice-activated systems within smart TVs. The average smartphone has a dictation service in it which can also be activated by its internal microphone. If the mic in your smartphone is hacked, then it could be turned on remotely by a determined hacker. Switch off such devices and if you need to say something that really is sensitive about your identity then do it in a place where no such devices are to be found, whether they are switched off or not.

Avoid Location Settings on Mobile Devices

Your location is part of the digital data that hackers collect to work out things about you. If your location settings are turned on on your mobile phone, for example, then anyone looking at such data could easily work out where you live by simply viewing where you happen to be most nights. Equally, data that is collected about your whereabouts could be used to figure out where you work or go to school. It could even be used to predict where you might be at a given time. Therefore, unless you need to use location services – for example, to use a map to help you work out where you might have got lost – turn them off on your mobile device. Remember that laptops and tablets also offer this sort of service as well as smartphones.

Although most operating systems will allow users to turn off location settings on their smart device for all apps, some software will keep prompting you to turn it back on. Simply avoid such apps if you can because some software developers are clever enough to have their apps turn on location settings even if you don’t consent to this. This is a form of malware which you might already have on your phone and not even be aware of. Delete any apps that you think might be dodgy or are not from a reputable source.

Be Wary of Social Media

There can be little doubt that social media is hugely popular and you should not consider deleting all of you social media accounts unless you are very concerned about your online privacy. Nevertheless, some basic precautions about your social media profiles should be taken. One of them is offering up key information like your date of birth to things like Facebook accounts. Facebook, and other social media platforms, make a great deal out of when birthdays occur but remember that your date of birth is a key security question that a data harvester might want in order to get at other personal information. You wouldn’t tell a stranger your mother’s maiden name or the name of your first pet, so why add this data voluntarily?

Another good idea is to use different names, name variants or pseudonyms for differing social media platforms. This means you can keep one identity distinct from another and prevent the amount that any one individual you interact with on social media can know about you. Review your security settings on whichever social media platforms you use on a frequent basis. This is because they change from time to time and you don’t want certain information to be made public just because you haven’t updated your preferences. Finally, use good, strong passwords for your social media accounts which cannot be guessed even by people who know you. Use different passwords for every account and never replicate them.

Deny Access to Your Webcam

You may think that your webcam is not in use, but who knows whether your system is really in control of it or a third party that has hacked into your device? It is not paranoid to be concerned about webcam abuse – the fact is that images of people are captured every day by unauthorised software. If you have a USB webcam, then the simplest thing to do is to unplug it unless you are using it for a specific purpose, such as a Skype video call over a trusted VPN.

For smart device users and people using laptops, webcams are integrated into their systems and unplugging them is not possible. Of course, you should be able to deny access to your device’s webcam in any app that might want to use it, but some apps circumvent these security measures in order to try and obtain compromising images that could be used to extort or blackmail. One simple measure that overcomes the problem is to place a little tape over your webcam. You can always remove it, when needed. Furthermore, a little piece of tape on your device is a constant reminder that you should always be rigorous with defending your privacy when online.

Run Antivirus Software

Devices running Windows, Mac and Android operating systems can all be liable to viruses. These days, they come in a myriad of forms – from Trojan horses to spyware and from phishing apps to ransomware. You should obviously avoid dodgy apps, odd email attachments and connecting to unknown devices via Bluetooth to avoid picking up viruses in the first place. However, the fact is that most people who use the internet do come across the occasional piece of malware just from their general browsing. This is where antivirus software comes in.

Although your device should have a firewall and a security service running as a part of its operating system, these elements are not enough to defend you from all potential problems on their own. If you don’t want to be spied on or have your passwords potentially read as you enter them into websites, then running a third-party antivirus programme is essential. There are plenty to choose from on the market and many of the developers offer free versions which do a really good job. If you want real-time protection and enhanced security features, then you will need to pay. Nevertheless, updating a free version of antivirus software and having it scan your device once a week is highly advisable. Good services will also block tracking software which makes your web browsing much more anonymous.

Don’t Forget to Log Off

One of the simplest ways a hacker can gain knowledge about your true identity from your online one is to gather information when you remain logged in to various online accounts and services. This is especially the case when you access a public Wi-Fi network or use a computer that is not your own, for example, one in an internet cafe. Always log off when you are finished and turn the device off, if this is practical. If you change your cloud email service to one which uses a secure app, rather than accessing it via a web browser, then this will help you to remain more secure online, too.


Leave a Reply