'Tis the season to be careful. From now until Christmas, Germans can get daily lessons on how to protect themselves online by opening the doors of a virtual Advent calendar provided by anti-surveillance advocates.
Normally Advent calendars are about opening up. But while the virtual calendar published by the German anti-online surveillance group Digitalcourage invites users to peep behind doors, what they find there are tips about how to shield themselves from the prying eyes of governments and companies. The calendar was launched on December 1 with a list of alternative search engines to Google, Yahoo or Bing that don't collect user data. These include MetaGer, ixquick and Qwant.
Most people aren't all that concerned with keeping what they do online a secret. But philosopher Leena Simon, who co-designed the Advent calendar, says that individuals have a responsibility to everyone they interact with online not to get hacked or have their data sucked up and disseminated for all to see on the internet. She says that this is part of being a responsible member of a democratic digital society.
"If I drive a car, I have to familiarize myself with cars so that I can use them without endangering others," Simon told DW. "With digital technology, people don't immediately recognize how they may be endangering others, but the threat still exists. People who use computers or smart phones should familiarize themselves with them so that they can be used without endangering others."
Other doors in the Advent calendar contain tips on encrypting email correspondence, using smartphone apps safely or finding alternatives to the most popular chat group services.
"Santa Claus isn't on WhatsApp because he wants everyone to be able to reach him, even those who don't agree to ultra-restrictive conditions of use," reads one coming entry. "We should all demand this from our messenger services."
A crash course and a bit of a challenge
Simon, who describes herself as an expert for "digital maturity and self-defense," explains that the idea for the Advent calendar originally came from an intern. She adopted it, she says, in part because she enjoys making non-virtual, non-cybersecurity-related Advent calendars.
The virtual Advent calendar is something of a crash course for users who want to better protect their data and maintain privacy, but Simon says it's designed to appeal to both novices and the more advanced.
"Some of the tips are simple and easy to follow, while others are more complicated and difficult," Simon said. "We offer links where people can read up on certain topics. If you really put every door on every day into practice, it could be a bit of a challenge."
The alternatives to Google are in fact clearly and comprehensibly laid out by Digitalcourage. In contrast, in order to understand the advice on smartphone apps, users have to be fluent in terms like "F-droid" or "android ecosystems."
A response to growing state surveillance
The past year has been a busy one for advocacy groups like Digitalcourage. As the final days of the past German government wound down, the Bundestag passed a whole raft of surveillance and data collection and retention laws.
"It is indeed worrying how much has happened," says Simon. "For example, preventative retention of data is now permitted. And at Südkreuz train station in Berlin, they're testing out the use of facial recognition surveillance software. In that sense 2017 has been pretty grim."
Simon says the problem is not just with the state but with commercial data mining as well.
"I'm always trying to tell people that when you make your data known, you give companies the power to better manipulate you," Simon explains. "That may sound harmless, but in America we've seen how it can have grave political consequences."
Still, Simon hopes that the series of enhanced surveillance measures now permitted in Germany has raised public awareness of data privacy issues. And Germans who want to delve deeper into this topic need only open the doors that will be appearing on the Digitalcourage website from now through December 24.