Staying Safe(r) Online
What to do when you’ve pissed off the internet (or at least a small corner of it)
Being subjected to threats, unwanted contact, compromised accounts, hacked websites, or having sensitive information shared online is an awful experience. In the midst of this, it can be confusing to know how to react and which steps to take to protect yourself. You’re likely to get conflicting advice on whether to take incidents seriously or ignore them, and trying to get up to speed on online security strategies with limited technical knowledge can make an already stressful situation more overwhelming. It’s not always obvious who’s responsible for ongoing harassment or how many people are involved, and trying to address a threat with limited information can be difficult. Please remember that you are not alone. If you were, this guide wouldn’t be here. You will get through this.
While there are no cut-and-dried, right-or-wrong ways to react to these types of situations, this e-book outlines some steps you can take to improve your security, for you to choose from based on your unique situation, temperament, and politics. (Special thanks to Michael Carbone, Stefan Edwards, and several people who want to remain anonymous, for reviewing early copies of this e-book, and to Maartje Gorte for editing it.)
Before getting started, there are a few disclaimers I’d like to emphasize.
First of all, although there is a lot you can do to minimize your risk of harm, there are never any guarantees. As long as you’re aware of this limitation, however, taking a proactive approach can be empowering.
Second, although I will be delving into a lot of tools, the best tool you have is between your ears. Adopting a security mindset, which can include but is not limited to finding the right tools, is key.
Third, be aware that some of the steps you can take to protect yourself online may slow down your workflow a bit. For example, password managers (which we’ll discuss below) offer a measure of security and peace of mind, but also require you to take an extra step before logging into anything. Two-factor authentication (also discussed below) helps protect important accounts, but requires you to use verification codes sent to you by text message to log into those accounts. Sometimes, getting everything to work together will involve a few extra steps as well. For example, setting up two-step verification on Gmail on each of your devices takes some time, so you may not be able to check your email on your mobile phone or tablet right away.
Finally, I want to emphasize that you don’t have to do everything listed here. By determining what you’re most concerned about, you can prioritize the steps that are most important to you, and not spend too much time on issues that don’t matter to you as much. This can help you decide which time and workflow constraints are worthwhile. As your circumstances change, the decisions you make may change as well.
Again, please remember that you don’t have to try to do everything on this list all at once! Pick the section(s) that you think will be most beneficial to you, and start there.
This guide is a work in progress and obviously can’t cover every situation, but will hopefully provide a bit of clarity on the options and help you decide which steps you want to take. Remember that a lot of these steps can be taken ahead of time, before anything happens. That’s less stressful and more effective.
1. Your physical safety
If your fundamental concern is your physical well-being—because you’ve received credible threats or your home address has been compromised— here are some options.
- Consider staying with a friend until things blow over. This can provide peace of mind if you feel unsafe in your home.
- If you do need to stay in your home, consider installing a security camera with a motion detector—the kind that only records if movement is detected.
- Make sure you have good locks, ideally deadbolts, on all of your doors. Remember to lock them at all times, even when you’re just leaving for a short time. When you’re at home, it can be a good idea to lock the door or close blinds and windows.
- Consider varying your route to work and home, and either avoiding locations you normally frequent or making sure you are going with friends.
- Consider contacting the authorities. Even if you don’t decide to contact them right now, start documenting what is happening so that there is a paper trail in case things escalate. (You can take screenshots or use archive.today to do this.) You’ll want timestamps and URLs for screenshots you take of comments on social media, and full headers for emails, which include the email addresses of the sender and the recipient, timestamps, etc. If you do contact the authorities, you may want to have someone else there with you as an advocate, and to explain anything about the situation that you may not think to emphasize. Be aware that police response can be quite underwhelming
- If the threats that make you worry about your physical safety come from an online source, try to share information about the perpetrators with other people, because they may have additional information. Setting up a shared file is a good way to gather information that can help you narrow down the location of the people contacting you, and sometimes even determine who they are. Try to find out information such as screen names, phone numbers, and IP addresses (if available—they can be found in email headers, site logs, chat logs, etc.). Back up your records in case you’ll need them later.