Privacy-enhancing software I trust / recommend
What: Feature-rich email, calendar, contacts, notes and (simple) file storage, based in Germany, supports encryption (PGP), 2-factor authentication (inc. Yubikey)
Why: Gmail's business relies on selling out your privacy to advertisers (same as Facebook), they don't store your data securely, don't support encrypted emails. Yahoo are even worse (all 3 billion of their accounts were exposed). Such companies also comply with government surveillance; they are not "free". You pay with your privacy. Mailbox is an alternative. Other good alternatives include Protonmail, Tutanota and Fastmail.
What: Free, open-source way to send end-to-end encrypted SMS messages, pics and voicemails via mobile, Windows, Mac or Linux.
Why: "Normal" text messages are subject to mass surveillance, so is Google 'Allo, etc. Signal is very easy to use.
What? Open-source, end-to-end encrypted (private/secure), affordable Slack-type way to chat via chatrooms/channels, manage team projects, share files, etc. Available on Windows, Mac, Linux and Mobile. Well-featured free version.
Why: Messages on Slack (and many like it) are not encrypted and can be read by Slack's admins, govt agencies, any hackers that breach their systems. Peerio's encryption protects against this.
What: Free, open-source, end-to-end encrypted password manager with strong features and that syncs your passwords, notes, attachments between devices, including mobile.
Why: You should be using a password manager. Bitwarden is more trustworthy than closed-source alternatives like Dashlane, Lastpass and 1Password. Lastpass (and maybe the others) doesn't encrypt domains you have accounts with, which could be used to profile where you go online/who you are. Bitwarden is easy to use, supports 2-factor authentication and has good browser plugins. Paid version is only $10/year.
What: A small USB device that plugs into your computer. You press a button when asked and it delivers a unique code used to authenticate you as your 2nd factor when logging into many different websites and services.
Why: You should have 2nd factor authentication enabled for as many services as possible. Yubikeys are cheap, extremely durable and contain no private information. They're extremely easy and quick to use. You can have multiple Yubikeys and use a friend's as a backup option. There's nothing to install, either. They work on all operating systems for logging into many services and apps, including: Bitwarden (see below), Lastpass, Keepass, Dashlane, Gmail (via Chrome), Mailbox.org, Fastmail, Tutanota, Microsoft Windows... it goes on and on...
What: Creates and encrypted version of your data in a "vault", which you sync to the cloud.
Why: Dropbox, Google Drive, iCloud and others can't read your private data, can't give it away to government surveillance requests and can't lose it in a readable format to hackers. Cryptomator is free, open source (trustworthy), uses the best encryption there is for this sort of thing and works on all platforms.
What: Swiss-based Dropbox-like service that syncs your files across Windows, Mac, Linux and mobile with zero-knowledge encryption, 2-factor authentication, and strong features for business. Expensive but might be worth it.
Why: Unlike Google Drive, OneDrive, Dropbox, Sugarsync, iCloud, Box.com etc., Tresorit cannot see or share (with governments) or leak (to hackers) the contents of your files. The other services I mentioned are subject to mass surveillance, and at least Google's case, make money from trawling through your private content for infomation to profile you, sell to advertisers. Where will that data be in 20 years? Who will incriminate you, dox or blackmail you or increase your insurance premiums using it? No one if you take precautions now to make sure it's not out there to begin with.
What: Canadian, Dropbox-like service that uses end-to-end encryption to provide waaay more privacy than you get from Dropbox, Google Drive, Box.com, Sugarsync, iCloud, etc. Works on Windows, Mac and mobile (not Linux).
Why: Dropbox, Google Drive, Box.com, Sugarsync, iCloud and most other similar services can see the contents of everything you store with them and hand it over to governmet(s) on request. Zero-knowledge encryption means Sync.com cannot see your stuff, can't give it to govt agencies or lose it to hackers who breach their servers. Very competitive price.
What: A VPN provider. Makes your online browsing much more anonymous.
Why: Without a VPN, your ISP (internet company) knows everything you do online and can track and sell info about your every move. In the US it became legal in 2017 for ISPs to profile their customers and sell their private data to the highest bidder. So if you searched for "nasty rash", every advertiser out there might know that. Using a trustworthy VPN will keep that information from your ISP. Private Internet Access are one of the most trustworthy out there (for too many reasons to mention here), they don't keep logs and in 2018 have promised to open source their code. They are also cheap. A good alternative is [ProtonVPN].(http://www.hypervtx.in/software/protonvpn )
What: A DNS service. When you type in "www.whatever.com " , it figures out how to convert that into computer speak and connect you to it.
Why: 220.127.116.11 are owned by Cloudflare. Their technology makes 18.104.22.168 blazing fast. Moreover, if you don't use them, you're using either Google's DNS servers or the DNS provided by your internet company. In that case, everything you search for is being tracked and can be sold to advertisers. Cloudflare promise to delete all records of what you've been doing online within 24 hours and never to sell it. Oh, and it's free, just see the instructions page: http://22.214.171.124
What: A very promising, multi-platform, open-source (and free!) markdown-based note-taking app.
Why? On Mac, Windows and Linux, Boostnote stores your data in any folder you designate, which you can then sync using whichever service you like (see below for syncing software). So you can have your notes everywhere, using end-to-end encryption. It also has tagging, instant search, cross-note links and code highlighting. It's open-source, trustworthy and developing quickly. Syncing to mobile needs development, but Boostnote is the best note-taking app I know so far.
Veracrypt can create encrypted containers for files or even encrypt whole hard drives or USB sticks. This is so no one except you can open and view the contents. It is built on the old TrueCrypt project, which was very popular. Somehow people are still recommending TrueCrypt (even though it's outdated), even though Veracrypt is newer, has had a number of security audits and improvements and has had more functionality added. It is an excellent, free and open source project run by academics in France.
Enter a password and your mounted (opened) contained or drive behaves just like any other hard disk on your system (e.g. copy/paste files with no noticable lag.) You can choose from various different (or even multiple) encryption protocols. You can even create hidden containers so that you can deny your secrets exist, even to authorities. One password opens up a drive with boring files, a different password opens your secrets. No one can prove the one with secrets even exists. Very clever. (This is called "Plausible deniability" under US law; read about it on Veracrypt's webpage.)
Veracrypt is for protecting data from prying eyes (e.g. so that no one can read it of your computer is lost, stolen or confiscated) or if your kids go snooping on your computer. Know, however, that encrypted containers are not good for syncing data; for that you want something like Cryptomator (or a service like Tresorit, Spideroak or Sync.com). These and Veracrypt complement each other, so you can (and probably should) use both. Veracrypt works on Windows, Mac and Linux (and probably BSD, I should imagine.)
What: Free, open-source, browser extension (Firefox, Chrome, Vivaldi, Opera, related) that forces connections to websites to use the more secure (and private) https protocol, where available.
Why: Http connections to websites make it possible for others (hackers, ISPs) to see what content you're looking at online. Https makes this hard. Some websites offer https but this extension forces the connection to go the more secure route. Extremely easy to use: add it to your browser and forget it.
What: Websites track everything you do and advertise to you all the time. uBlock Origin is a free and open source browser extension (all major browsers) that blocks all that stuff.
Why: Because privacy. And because adds are annoying. And because it makes websites load faster. And because it's free, open source and developed by the good folks at the Electronic Frontier Foundation (one of the internet's few good guys who fight for your online rights).
What: Free and open-source way to send large files to another person privately without anyone else's servers in the middle storing your data. Both sender and recipient should be online at the same time.
Why: Easy to use, allows larger files than email, makes it difficult for anyone else to see what you are sending. Files are transfered using SSL encryption.
Also consider: Syncthing (especially if you have many files to transfer)
When picking an app, any app, ask yourself:
I was very long winded in answering you the first time. Think of it like this: Sync.com is a massive security and privacy improvement over Dropbox.
It's like this: If Sync.com is lying, they're offering you the same security as Dropbox when they are telling the truth. If Sync.com is telling the truth, you're WAY better off than with Dropbox. Therefore, Sync.com is a much better choice for both privacy (the company can't spy on your files) and security (they can't lose your stuff to other people).
So I would get Sync.com, get rid of Dropbox and move on to make improvements in other departments. (e.g. email, VPN, stop using Chrome, get browser add-ons, Skype replacements, and so on).
Your question concerns two things: to what extent we should pursue privacy and, more specifically, how good is Sync.com for your privacy?
Let me take Sync.com first. You're right: it's not open source. Ideally, it would be, so that everyone could inspect their code, which is the foremost source of trust. However, how 'good' for your privacy Sync.com depends on other things. So whilst it doesn't score open source points, it scores big in other departments. Assuming you can trust what they say, Sync.com give you zero-knowledge encryption for your files. That means files they backup/sync for you are visible only to you. Not them. That's a GIGANTIC improvement compared to services like Dropbox, Google Drive, Sugarsync, OneDrive and so on. The principle behind this is that Sync.com's software encrypts your stuff on your computer, with a password that ONLY you have. They don't have it. Dropbox and those other guys, by contrast, encrypt your stuff on their servers with a key that they have. And can share. And so they can look at and lose your stuff, or be forced to give it away to government authorities. So Sync.com don't score big on trust (which is not to say they're lying to you), but they score big on the MODEL that they use, and that's a big advantage over these other companies people usually go with. So compared to Dropbox, Sync.com are hugely preferable.
But now comes the harder thing to consider. Sync.com have clients for Windows and Mac only. Not Linux and BSD. And Windows and Mac are proprietary, closed-source operating systems. That means you can't check what they're doing to your data. Because of this, it's POSSIBLE that, whilst Sync.com is protecting you to the max with their great encryption model, your operating system is leaking information left, right and centre about what files you're storing. That can happen in many ways. For a start, Microsoft or Apple could be keeping a record on what software you've got installed on your machine, including that you have Sync.com. Microsoft has also an absolutely disgusting practice in Windows of keylogging, by default, EVERYTHING you type. And yep, that includes that all-so-secret password you're using for Sync.com. You can switch off the keylogger in the privacy settings, but how do you know they are really switching it off? You can't check the code (Windows isn't open source), and maybe US law-enforcement told them to keylog anyway the inputs from people who have Sync.com installed. After all, maybe those are the people trying to hide something with encryption. Follow my drift? Apple are no more trustworthy. Just a couple of years ago, their DESKTOP search engine reported everything you searched for back to Bing (a Microsoft product!). More recently, that's gone to being a Google collaboration.
So now I have you worried.
Because you're considering Sync.com I know you're a Windows or a Mac user (or both). Are you better off using Sync.com than, say, Dropbox? Absolutely. Does it protect you from the very nature of your operating system? No. Not at all.
I don't know your computer or privacy requirements. I would always urge you to ditch Apple and Windows in favour of Linux, if you can. I know that, for various reasons, not everyone is able to do this. (I have this problem at work, for example.) Ultimately, Sync.com is a reasonably priced service that encrypts your data and that alone makes it miles better than Dropbox. Give them your money, not Dropbox.
It's something like this:
Win/Mac + Dropbox < Win/Mac + Sync.com < Linux/BSD + a proprietary service (e.g. SpiderOak) <<< Linux/BSD + an open source service
Ok. So what about the Canada thing, right? Is it a problem? Well, I can't pretend to be a lawyer. But I trust in mathematics much more than in laws. Laws can be bent, mathematics (read: good encryption) can't. That's the essence of it. It "feels" to non-experts that US-based businesses must be the worst for privacy, but actually, there are US laws that allow US agencies to spy on the data of foreign (non-US) nationals but not US nationals. That puts data in Canada at greater risk. But it applies the same to Iceland and Switzerland too. On the other hand, Canada willingly participates in the Five Eyes program, so perhaps your data isn't safer there than it would be in the US anyway. I guess what I'm trying to say is that jurisdictions mean much less than encryption.
Perhaps you're wondering what I use.
I use: Linux as my OS and Tresorit as my syncing service. It's not perfect. Tresorit is not open source and it's terribly expensive. But it's hosted in Switzerland and they support Linux. Now, I know that's an expensive solution and I think that won't work for everyone. What if I had to get cheaper? I would go with Linux + Mega OR Linux + SpiderOak. If I HAD to stick with Windows (shudder) I would consider Sync.com as good ad Tresorit, except for the legal stuff, which I think is a minor consideration.
I hope that helps. Let me know if you need any more specific help or clarity from me. Glad to hear you're taking your privacy into your own hands!
Glad to see that your back! Have been missing your comments / reviews. Nice that you found the list feature!
[Edited by Ola, March 25]
Thanks. Nice to be back.
Well-researched, informative and ample list from a trustworthy source. Thumbs up, John!
One question, on bitwarden's entry, you don't mention Encryptr. Do you still recommend it as a good password manager alternative? Cheers.
[Edited by carmelapedinni, April 19]
Encryptr meets some of my favourite criteria: open source and good encryption. (It's made by the folks at SpiderOak.)
However, Encryptr is very simple. It lacks two-factor authentication (2FA), so that makes it less safe (or as safe as Bitwarden without 2FA on). You should aim to have 2FA if you can, particularly for important things. Encryptr has no browser plugin, and so you have to copy/paste your login credentials into a browser. Generally, it's not the best idea to have passwords stored in your copy/paste clipboard as, in principle, that could be read by mailcious apps.
I would say that Encryptr is best to recommend to people who are really not used to using computers (e.g. my grandma); few apps are simpler. It's better to have than nothing, but it doesn't have enough features for me. But it's free (as in beer) and you can just download it and play with it for 10 minutes to see if it's for you.
Thanks so much for the through answer. I've been using Encryptr for a while now but I'm also missing some of the features you mentioned, especially on mobile. I'll definitely look into your other suggestions, then! Cheers.
Hi John, I've been reading quite a few of comments/reviews from you and I have to say that I'm really impressed with the effort that you put into explaining things and pointing out not-so-obvious facts/news. I'm already starting using many tools based on your recommendations so thanks for that! I wanted to ask you however about Sync.com: how come it is included in this list while is based in Canada (are there any privacy concerns)? I also couldn't find a lot of information about it being open-source (only about their browser version). Otherwise it looks like a great service but I wanted to ask you directly about it, if you don't mind.
Thanks a lot, cheers.
As usual a very thorough and educational response, thank you!
Yes, I'm using Windows, and yes, I've been using Dropbox for quite some time now. I want to change that. But it seems the more you read about it the harder it gets to make a decision, with so many things to consider. I've been wondering too about country jurisdictions and ultimately I have to agree with you: your money should go where numbers are solid. On the other hand at some point you are just going to have to trust on someone else and take their word for it, there's just no way around it, and so again it becomes really hard to make the right choice. Regarding Sync.com is just a bit strange to me that they would open up their source code in the browser but not in their desktop/mobile clients. I'm not an expert in the subject and I'm sure there must be a good reason for it, but the way I look at this is like building trust on uneven ground.
In any case is always good to know that there is an alternative even if you have to work a little harder to get to it. I really appreciate all the effort you are putting into making this list, commenting and explaining so clearly this type of things that go over our heads for the most of us. Cheers!