The ability of individuals, corporations, and the government to track what you do online has become a hot-button topic in the last several years, now that 91% of Americans feel like they’ve lost control of their online privacy. Laws and regulations regarding internet privacy have lagged far behind the technology, though several states have started proposing legislation to better protect users from having their private data sold to the highest bidder.
Comprehensive Guide to Online Privacy
Online privacy goes deeper than companies like Facebook selling demographic information about its users, though. There are many other ways in which your privacy can be violated, online and off. Fortunately, there are steps you can take to help keep your information secure.
Use Antivirus Software
Most people are aware that a virus can cause computer problems like redirecting a browser to specific sites, slowing it down, or locking it up completely. If someone makes a backdoor into your system with a virus to scan for information and possibly log your keystrokes to steal your passwords, you might not be aware it’s happening. Antivirus computer software is good at catching these Trojan horse viruses that sneak in and wreak havoc on your privacy.
Use the software to scan your downloads automatically, manually scan anything that looks suspicious and schedule scans to run regularly. Update it often, and let it scan your network and all your attached devices along with your computer. The software can also help you strengthen your computer’s firewall to prevent problems before they start.
Use a Virtual Private Network
One of the best ways to protect your privacy when you’re online is to use a Virtual Private Network (VPN) that masks your IP address and replaces it with a different server’s address. This keeps sites from being able to trace your IP and what you do online. A VPN keeps you anonymous, and your risk of being hacked drops as a result.
Be aware of Online Scams
The list of scams people can fall prey to on the internet is extensive. Fortunately, if you’re aware of the most common ones, you can better protect yourself. Some of the most common scams to guard against are:
- Malware – Viruses in email attachments or links have been a problem since the internet began. If you’re not expecting an attached file in your email, even if the email appears to be from someone you know, don’t click on it until you are sure. The same goes for emails from strangers and suspicious links on social media or in forums. Don’t open them. You can be directed to a site where malware is downloaded to your computer. Antivirus software will stop most of these, but new viruses – especially ransomware – are developed all the time to try to get around the algorithms, so using your intuition is also important.
- Phishing – When you get an unexpected email like one that claims your bank, social security, or some other organization needs your information because of a problem or update, the link you’re supposed to click will look normal at first glance. But when you hover your mouse pointer over it (but don’t click it), the actual address will be different from what the link says it is, and won’t match the official website. Contact the alleged sender in a new email, text or phone call to verify if you’re uncertain. Usually, when important information is shared from an organization, it will come in the form of a letter. For instance, the IRS will not call you and tell you that you need to pay them a certain amount of money. If you do owe them money, they will inform you through “snail mail” to reduce the likelihood of getting hacked. If you get a call over the phone about important private information, always be cautious.
- Tech Support Scam – Tech support scams are also common scams that can take place through a phone call or email. Generally, someone will inform you that there’s a “problem” with your computer. You will likely be instructed to call immediately to get it taken care of. The friendly tech support person will tell you that your ISP has found your computer to be heavily infected with viruses, and they’re here to help. They’ll request remote access to your computer – be sure to never let anyone have this access. They’ll download your files to look for bank and credit card information, and sometimes they’ll cripple your computer so they can ask for payment to repair it.
- Other Consumer Scams – There are many scams to try to separate you from your data and your money, ranging from car warranty and IRS scams to lottery scams. Fortunately, it’s simple to avoid most of them with a spam filter. Set your email to filter spam automatically to keep most of the scams out of your inbox. If some get through, never reply to them. If you do, it alerts the sender that they’ve reached a real address they can hijack as a reply email to send spam to other people.
Protect your Data
Hackers can’t steal information they can’t find. Vital data like passwords, bank account numbers, your Social Security number, and date of birth shouldn’t be available on your computer. Also, don’t send this information through emails or chats where it’s almost never encrypted and secure.
Keep all important data off your smartphone, too. Phones are even less secure than computers, so never text this kind of information or send it by email or private messages where it can be intercepted. To avoid your smartphone’s own software tracking you, go into the privacy settings on your phone and turn off its ability to detect your location.
- Don’t Use Public Computers – Public-access computers and Wi-Fi are risky and insecure. If you must use one, don’t log into any site or put your personal information into any form. If you log in anywhere, your password is vulnerable to being stolen. If some circumstance arises where you must check your email or do other business on a public computer, make sure you log out before you leave, and consider changing your password as soon as you have access to a private connection again.
- Use More Secure Email and Messaging – Gmail is handy, but Google is one of the worst offenders when it comes to privacy. No free email is ever going to be as secure as an email account you pay for that promises encryption, security, and privacy. Direct messaging apps suffer from the same issues. The companies that provide them, like Facebook, often collect and sell your data, and the messages aren’t secure, making them easy to intercept and use to learn information about you. A secure messaging app like Wire or Signal can help you keep your private conversations truly private.
- Don’t Give Your Data Away on Social Media – About 70% of American adults use social media, and it seems like everyone posts when they’re at restaurants or vacationing out of town. Social media already tracks you and profits from your personal data every day, but advertising your physical location adds another layer of risk. Protect your privacy by never posting such information on social media.
- Double-check your social media profiles and privacy settings to be sure you know exactly what’s on display and who can see it. If your posts are public rather than restricted to friends and contacts, pictures of your home, cars, and surrounding areas can give a stranger enough information to find you. Predators can look at your posts and learn your children’s names, ages, general location, schools, and more, putting them at risk. Strangers can figure out when you’re on vacation and when your home is empty.
- Protect your privacy even more by not filling out popular social media “getting to know you” memes made up of lists of questions. They typically ask things like the street you grew up on, your first pet, your mother’s maiden name, and many other personal questions. Many of the common password recovery questions sites ask if you happen to forget a password are on those lists, making the hacker’s job easier. There can be consequences of oversharing on social media!
Take sufficient security measures
- Choose Strong Passwords – Any passwords you store on your computer are fair game if someone gets access. But even if no one can hack into your system, they still may be able to get into your online banking, social media accounts, and email if you choose passwords that are too easy for hackers to guess.
- Use a unique password for every site, and don’t use real words, names, or anything that someone could guess (like the places and things in those social media memes). If you can easily remember it, a hacker may be able to figure it out. Long passwords made up of capital and lowercase letters, numbers, and symbols are strong passwords that are nearly impossible to guess.
- You won’t remember truly strong passwords, so write them down. If you lose your list of passwords and must have them more readily available, computer software can help. A password manager is an option as long as you choose one that’s encrypted and secure. Many password managers will even recommend extremely strong passwords for you.
- Use Two-Step Authentication Where Available – In the event that one of your passwords gets compromised, one more layer of protection that can protect you is two-step authentication. Set it up on every site that offers it, so that when you log in, you have to complete a second step to verify it’s actually you by letting the site send you a text message, email or automated phone call. If you get a message asking for verification that you didn’t initiate, change your password for that website immediately.
- Be a Savvy Online Shopper – Data shows that 96% of Americans shop online. It’s easy, convenient, and offers a selection no physical store can match. It’s also a risk to your finances if you let the sites where you shop save your payment information.
- Resist the urge to click the box that saves your payment info for next time, no matter how convenient it seems. If the site’s data gets breached—and this is something that has happened many times to retailers big and small—your credit card number can be exposed. Spend the extra few minutes it takes to enter your payment information each time you make a purchase. And be sure to only buy from trustworthy online stores that have secure connections designated with the “HTTPS” prefix in their URLs.
- Delete Tracking Cookies – Many sites, especially retail sites, deposit cookies in your browser to let the website recognize you so that you don’t have to log in each time. Unfortunately, many also track your other activity online. You can look in your browser’s settings to easily delete any or all of them. It has now become imperative to also opt-out of Google FloC.
- Don’t Use Smart Home Products – Google Home, Alexa, and Siri listen all the time so they can respond when you trigger them. If you want to lock down privacy in your home or on your devices, don’t use these products at all. But if you’ve come to rely on them, you still might want to change your settings to keep them from recording everything you say to them.
- Many people don’t realize how much information is stored by these devices. Google stopped recording and saving interactions by default a couple of years ago, but if you have an older device you might need to change your settings. Siri doesn’t allow you to opt-out of being recorded, though the recordings are not connected to you. If you use Alexa, check out amazon.com to delete its recordings.
- The privacy issues that come up with smart home devices go even beyond sound recordings. If you use smart appliances, from thermostats to light bulbs, every time something turns on or off that information is captured and transmitted to a server, adding to the cache of information about you. Avoid these devices, or look deep into the settings and policies of each one so you’re aware of exactly what’s being recorded.
- Do the Best You Can to Stay Secure – To keep your information as secure as possible, remember that every device you use that has access to the internet, and every site you use, is a potential vulnerability. Don’t put anything on your computer, your phone, or the internet in general that you want to keep private. Be aware of common scams, and avoid them. Use a privacy search engine like DuckDuckGo. Download this Digital Citizenship Toolkit from Microsoft.com as it has a lot of tips on this subject for you. Finally, examine the settings of all your devices and apps to see what’s tracked and collected, and adjust them to a level you’re comfortable with.
If you follow these steps to protect your Digital Privacy, you’ll greatly reduce the risk that your private information will end up in someone else’s hands.