Skip to main content
It looks like you're using Internet Explorer 11 or older. This website works best with modern browsers such as the latest versions of Chrome, Firefox, Safari, and Edge. If you continue with this browser, you may see unexpected results.

University Library

Digital Privacy

This guide is a living document and will be regularly updated with new information.

Welcome!

As the world adapts under coronavirus, countless universities and college campuses like Cal Poly Pomona have rapidly introduced online instruction and encouraged the use of digital collaboration tools. Though these tools and services are absolutely essential in this uncertain time, many of the most popular platforms also pose a privacy risk to their new users.

The following guide offers a simplified privacy-centric breakdown of commonly used video conferencing programs, collaboration tools, and browsers, alongside secure alternatives.

Video Conferencing Tools

ZoomINCONSISTENT PRIVACY POLICY – USE CAUTION
  • Zoom offers free 40 minutes calls to any user, though guest allotment varies by paid subscription. The program is application based and requires a software download to your device.
  • CPP currently uses Zoom widely. Pay close attention to all regular updates sent by IT about how to best protect yourself when using the software – their solutions will improve your privacy and security when using the software.
  • Zoom is a very common video conferencing tool – but their lax privacy policy has raised red flags for security engineers and educators alike. Calls through Zoom have been vulnerable to "zoom bombing" and, until very recently, ZOOM shared your data with third-parties companies like Facebook – regardless of if you have a Facebook account or not.
  • Some of their marketing falsely says that calls can be end-to-end encrypted. The company also has the power to intercept calls and share their contents with law enforcement.
  • For more information, check out "Zoom Has Security Flaws. Its Still Fine To Use" by Jason Koebler at VICE News, April 3, 2020.

FaceTime SECURE BUT NOT AVAILABLE TO EVERYONE
  • FaceTime is end-to-end encrypted, which means your call is only accessible to the people involved. Your trust in their encryption will probably depend on your overall trust in Apple's overall privacy and security policies.
  • The app allows for up to 32 participants, is relatively easy to use, and connects to your phone number and/or email.
  • Video and sound quality is somewhat inconsistent and largely depends on the strength of your WiFi.
  • The app is only available to Apple users – so you must have an Apple device (smart phone or computer) to access.

Google Hangouts/Google MeetSECURE BUT NOT AVAILABLE TO EVERYONE
  • Another very common video conferencing system with a similar structure to Zoom, Skype, and Microsoft Teams.
  • For now, Google Hangouts offers free video calls to any user with a Google account. The free version is currently being phased out and replaced with Google Meet, a more streamlined, business-centric tool. Hangouts allows you to video conference with up to 25 people, Meet allows for 100 and up (starting with the G Suite Basic Plan).
  • Meet will be available for free until later this year, in response to COVID-19.
  • Since the software is connected to Google, your trust in the overall security of Hangouts/Meet, again, depends on how much your trust Google as a company. Meets is totally cloud-based and appears to center privacy and security. They offer encryption as well as default privacy settings in place for all accounts.

WherebySECURE – ACCESSIBLE – GOOD FOR VERY SMALL MEETINGS

  • Whereby is a newer, privacy-forward video conferencing option from a company based in Norway. The app is similar in functionality to Zoom, Google Meet, and Skype. They are GDPR compliant, allow all users to download whatever data they have about you, never store your audio or video on their servers, and secures everything with encryption.
  • Whereby offers a single conference room for free to any user, for up to four guests – with increased guest capacity and bonus features as you move up in their tiered paid subscription options.
  • The program is browser-based but a login is required for the host. No passwords for each meeting or even logging in – instead a one time code is sent to the registered email on file to start each chat.
  • You can do screensharing, chat, and share emojis. Recording calls is reserved for paid subscriptions. All users can "lock" there rooms and accept new guests one by one.

Jitsi Meet SECURE – ACCESSIBLE – GOOD FOR SMALL MEETINGS – BEST CHOICE
  • With Jitsi, no download or registration is required. Every chat is browser based for both host and guests – you can download an app to use Jitsi on your phone. Keep in mind. Each chat is based around unique URL names – so when naming your chat, be sure to choose something unique. If you choose a common name, your chats are vulnerable to uninvited guests or you may accidentally "bomb" someone else's private conversation!
  • Jitsi is free to use, open-source (meaning the code used to maintain the app is publicly available and dependent on an active community of developers), and allows for up to 75 participants in each call. Like most of the tools mentioned above, Jitsi offers chat, screen sharing, and call recording without any fees.
  • Fully encrypted chats can be further secured with a password. Jitsi is also GDPR compliant.
  • The video quality is decent but can fail easily depending upon your WiFi access.
  • Works best in Google Chrome, when all or most other windows are closed.

Online Collaboration Tools

GoogleDocs – USE CAUTION

  • Google definitely offers the standard toolkit when it comes to online collaboration with their Google Docs, Sheets, and other offerings. Unfortunately, when using anything created by Google you run the risk of making your personal data vulnerable. Google has a history of locking people out of their documents as well as allowing law enforcement to gain access to their users' data.
  • GoogleDocs is easily accessible, free with a Gmail account, and can be used on a phone through a downloadable app as well as in browser. Use caution and assume that anything you write in a GoogleDoc is or could be accessed by someone outside of the people you directly collaborate with.

NOTIONSOMEWHAT PRIVACY-MINDED

  • An "all-in-one-workspace" that offers collaboration tools, like Google, and communication tools, like Slack.
  • At the individual level, you can access all of their tools for free or a nominal fee to gain access to version control (the ability to see past versions of your collaboration documents).
  • You can use Notion in a web-browser, as a downloadable computer application, or as a phone app.
  • Though they are GDPR Compliant and do not "sell" user data, they still log IP address and share some information with third-parties. Those third parties may also use things like web beacons, pixel tags, or cookies to track you, though Notion will not have access to or store this kind of information.

CRYPTPADSECURE – ACCESSIBLE

  • A "private by design" series of products, CryptPad offers users secure alternatives to a suite of collaboration tools – you can create text pads, spreadsheet pads, a code pad, among other options. 
  • You can access most of their tools without even logging-in but gain greater access if you register and more storage if you pay for a nominal subscription. The tools can be used by individuals and organizations.
  • Very, very privacy centered. Everything is encrypted. Anonymous pads are automatically-deleted if unused for 3 months. The can see IP addresses (unique computer address) and encourage uses to login with Tor if seeking anonymity. They provide a simplified privacy policy.

RISEUP PADSECURE – ACCESSIBLE – BEST CHOICE

  • Riseup is an autonomous collective that supports social change through secure, privacy-centric digital tools. Their Riseup Pad is an instance of Etherpad, a web-based collaboration tool that is a popular open-source alternative to GoogleDocs and Slack.
  • Riseup Pad allows you to work with collaborators on text documents, just like Google Docs but without compromising your data.
  • The tool is completely free, independent, and only available in your web-browser.
  • Unlike Google Docs and your saved folders, Riseup Pad is only available through a URL – if you forget that URL or fail to update your pad before it expires, you will lose all of your work.
  • Riseup also offers private wikis and file-sharing for further collaboration.

Browsers

Microsoft Edge (PCs) // Safari (Apple) ADJUSTMENTS RECOMMENDED

  • These are two of the most common browsers. They are automatically part of the applications suite on a new computer - which one depends on whether or not you have a PC or a Mac product.
  • Neither system offers much privacy out-of-the-box. Their mutual goals are to acquire as much information about your browsing activity as possible – to both personalize your experience online and to sell your data.
  • Microsoft Edge offers a detailed outline of what they do with your data and what they collect -- you can make some adjustments. If this is your preferred browser, consider installing an extension like Privacy Badger to limit the information taken by third parties.
  • Likewise, Safari allows users to do things like adjust their cookie settings and prevent cross-site tracking. If this is your preferred browser, update those settings. You should also consider installing a privacy-conscious extension like Ghostery or uBlock Origin, both will allow you greater control about how much information is shared with third parties through tracking and ads.

Chrome (Google) – ADJUSTMENTS RECOMMENDED

  • Chrome is a very common browser but one you'll have to intentionally seek out and download. Similar to Edge and Safari, Chrome does not offer strong privacy control without modifications.
  • If this is your preferred browser, you should consider adjusting your privacy settings and downloading extensions like Privacy Badger or HTTPS Everywhere to make your browsing more secure.
  • Also, keep in mind that Google is one of the five tech giants -- alongside Apple, Facebook, Microsoft, and Amazon. Your trust in their products will probably depend on how much you trust the company and how they handle user data.

Firefox (Mozilla) – GOOD OPTION, FURTHER ADJUSTMENTS RECOMMENDED

  • A common browser, often seen as an alternative to Google Chrome. Most programs run well in Firefox but you may encounter some connectivity issues on occasion – this is often because of how a site or app was built rather than it being a core issue of the browser itself.
  • Firefox is from Mozilla – a non-profit that centers open-access and privacy - so keep that in mind as you decide how much trust to put into the company behind your browser.
  • Though they value privacy, you will need to adjust your privacy settings in Firefox before using it. Additionally, consider browser extensions like Privacy Badger or HTTPS Everywhere to, again, make your browsing experience more secure.

TorHIGHLY SECURE, BEST OPTION FOR PRIVACY

  • Tor, or "The Onion Router," is a browser that was built to circumvent tracking and internet surveillance. Users can browse freely without their devices being fingerprinted by the sites that they visit or their traffic being tracked.
  • Since Tor is so deeply encrypted, some sites may not allow you to use them or break as your browse the web. Also, Tor's speed depends on how many users and independent servers are active in the network. This means that the more people using Tor, the better your experience with the browser will be.
  • Tor is considered the best-choice by privacy and security experts seeking anonymity online.

Further Recommendations – As data breaches become more common, privacy-minded technologists are continuously working to create alternatives to predatory apps and software. Browsers are no exception. If you're curious about browsers and looking for further options, check out the following alternatives: