When you visit a website, the website will likely acquire some basic information about you, such as IP address, the operating system on your computer, the browser you are using, the ISP you used to connect, your location, screen resolution, and similar data. Some websites store login cookies on your computer so that you don’t have to log in each time you go to those websites. But it is not all. As you browse online, you leave enough hints for websites and web-apps to identify you. Let us see what personally identifiable information on the Internet is and how to protect your PII.
What is Personally Identifiable Information (PII)
The data that aids in identifying a specific individual is called personally identifiable information, or PII for short. Examples of such data are social security numbers, phone numbers, shipping addresses, and passports. This data is combined with other data of your which is already collected from the Internet via device and browser fingerprinting, to create a digital file about you so that the websites or any other entity can identify you on the Internet.
All this information is stored with online marketers and brokers who sell your data to different companies that ‘want to show you relevant advertisements’ and provide you with ‘better user experience’. The same data can also be sold to cybercriminals who may harm you in several ways. So how do you protect your personally identifiable information? Is it possible? To some extent, you can control it. The next section explains how to protect your PII.
How to protect Personally Identifiable Information
In the browser settings, there is an option saying, “Do not track“. Tick the checkbox or the corresponding radio button. It will stop some websites from tracking you. Not all websites pay attention to the request sent by browser though.
All mainstream browsers nowadays have an option to prevent tracking cookies from following you on the web. Mainstream browsers like Firefox, Chrome, Edge come with features that discourage tracking of users. You can customize the level of protection too.
In Microsoft Edge, go to Settings and click on Privacy and Services. You will be presented with three levels of tracking protection. Click on the tracking prevention level you want. Balanced is good and works in different environments.
In Mozilla Firefox, go to Preferences and then click on Browser Privacy that has a lock as its icon. You can select which level of tracking to use. It also allows you to create custom rules for tracking protection by whitelisting only the websites you want.
Another good extension to block tracking is Ghostery. It tells you about what all tracking aids are present on a website. You can then decide which ones to allow and block.
Using the above-mentioned browser extensions and browser settings, you can protect personally identifiable information to some extent. The following are some other methods to protect your PII.
Tips for Privacy on the Internet
1]Do not share your personal information on the Internet. This includes your SSN, bank account numbers and related passwords. It happens that people think a particular social network is encrypted so they share things like PAN (Permanent Account Number), SSN, and even their physical address. I once saw a person sharing his physical address on Twitter, asking for a fight with some other user.
2] You can use a P.O. Box instead of sharing your address. You can get one by applying to the nearest post office. Thus, you can simply enter your PO Box number whenever you encounter entities asking for your physical address.
3] You can use one of these disposable email ID providers to websites that ask for you. They can be used for things like one-time verification when you sign up for something. This helps in keeping your other email IDs safe. Similarly, you can get a voice call number from Google Voice for phone calls. More about Google Voice here.
4] You can also ask Search Engines to remove data about you. If the site you are visiting employs Disqus Comments, you can click the “Do Not Sell” option to prevent Disqus from sharing your data.
5] You can use certain artifacts that allow you to remove yourself from the files of different companies that have been tracking you.
There are more tips here that will help you to Stay Safe Online & Protect Personal Information while Browsing.
This explains what personally identifiable information is and how to protect your PII from landing up on social marketers’ databases.