"Open-source software is always secure" or "Proprietary software is more secure"¶
These myths stem from a number of prejudices, but whether the source code is available and how software is licensed does not inherently affect its security in any way. Open-source software has the potential to be more secure than proprietary software, but there is absolutely no guarantee this is the case. When you evaluate software, you should look at the reputation and security of each tool on an individual basis.
Open-source software can be audited by third-parties, and is often more transparent about potential vulnerabilities than proprietary counterparts. It also allows you to review the code and disable any suspicious functionality you find yourself. However, unless you do so, there is no guarantee that code has ever been evaluated, especially with smaller software projects. The open development process has also sometimes been exploited to introduce new vulnerabilities into even large projects.1
On the flip side, proprietary software is less transparent, but that doesn't imply that it's not secure. Major proprietary software projects can be audited internally and by third-party agencies, and independent security researchers can still find vulnerabilities with techniques like reverse engineering.
To avoid biased decisions, it's vital that you evaluate the privacy and security standards of the software you use.
"Shifting trust can increase privacy"¶
We talk about "shifting trust" a lot when discussing solutions like VPNs (which shift the trust you place in your ISP to the VPN provider). While this protects your browsing data from your ISP specifically, the VPN provider you choose still has access to your browsing data: Your data isn't completely secured from all parties. This means that:
- You must exercise caution when choosing a provider to shift trust to.
- You should still use other techniques, like E2EE, to protect your data completely. Merely distrusting one provider to trust another is not securing your data.
"Privacy-focused solutions are inherently trustworthy"¶
Focusing solely on the privacy policies and marketing of a tool or provider can blind you to its weaknesses. When you're looking for a more private solution, you should determine what the underlying problem is and find technical solutions to that problem. For example, you may want to avoid Google Drive, which gives Google access to all of your data. The underlying problem in this case is lack of E2EE, so you should make sure that the provider you switch to actually implements E2EE, or use a tool (like Cryptomator) which provides E2EE on any cloud provider. Switching to a "privacy-focused" provider (that doesn't implement E2EE) doesn't solve your problem: it just shifts trust from Google to that provider.
The privacy policies and business practices of providers you choose are very important, but should be considered secondary to technical guarantees of your privacy: You shouldn't shift trust to another provider when trusting a provider isn't a requirement at all.
"Complicated is better"¶
We often see people describing privacy threat models that are overly complex. Often, these solutions include problems like many different email accounts or complicated setups with lots of moving parts and conditions. The replies are usually answers to "What is the best way to do X?"
Finding the "best" solution for yourself doesn't necessarily mean you are after an infallible solution with dozens of conditions—these solutions are often difficult to work with realistically. As we discussed previously, security often comes at the cost of convenience. Below, we provide some tips:
- Actions need to serve a particular purpose: think about how to do what you want with the fewest actions.
- Remove human failure points: We fail, get tired, and forget things. To maintain security, avoid relying on manual conditions and processes that you have to remember.
- Use the right level of protection for what you intend. We often see recommendations of so-called law-enforcement or subpoena-proof solutions. These often require specialist knowledge and generally aren't what people want. There's no point in building an intricate threat model for anonymity if you can be easily de-anonymized by a simple oversight.
So, how might this look?
One of the clearest threat models is one where people know who you are and one where they do not. There will always be situations where you must declare your legal name and there are others where you don't need to.
Known identity - A known identity is used for things where you must declare your name. There are many legal documents and contracts where a legal identity is required. This could range from opening a bank account, signing a property lease, obtaining a passport, customs declarations when importing items, or otherwise dealing with your government. These things will usually lead to credentials such as credit cards, credit rating checks, account numbers, and possibly physical addresses.
We don't suggest using a VPN or Tor for any of these things, as your identity is already known through other means.
When shopping online, the use of a parcel locker can help keep your physical address private.
Unknown identity - An unknown identity could be a stable pseudonym that you regularly use. It is not anonymous because it doesn't change. If you're part of an online community, you may wish to retain a persona that others know. This pseudonym isn't anonymous because—if monitored for long enough—details about the owner can reveal further information, such as the way they write, their general knowledge about topics of interest, etc.
You may wish to use a VPN for this, to mask your IP address. Financial transactions are more difficult to mask: You could consider using anonymous cryptocurrencies, such as Monero. Employing altcoin shifting may also help to disguise where your currency originated. Typically, exchanges require KYC (know your customer) to be completed before they'll allow you to exchange fiat currency into any kind of cryptocurrency. Local meet-up options may also be a solution; however, those are often more expensive and sometimes also require KYC.
Anonymous identity - Even with experience, anonymous identities are difficult to maintain over long periods of time. They should be short-term and short-lived identities which are rotated regularly.
Using Tor can help with this. It is also worth noting that greater anonymity is possible through asynchronous communication: Real-time communication is vulnerable to analysis of typing patterns (i.e. more than a paragraph of text, distributed on a forum, via email, etc.)
One notable example of this is the 2021 incident in which University of Minnesota researchers introduced three vulnerabilities into the Linux kernel development project. ↩
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