How can you protect your privacy online?
Corporations, internet providers and advertisers are tracking you. Governments and agencies are watching you. Take control of your data on the internet. Learn how to protect your privacy online.
Privacy on the internet is a dwindling commodity. Why? Because big money can be made by tracking website visitors. The more companies track you, the more they know about the sites you visit, the apps you use, your interests, your habits, your background and your family. Tech companies compile this data into a profile, which they then sell to third parties.
The more a company knows about you, the more valuable their profile on you.
How do websites and apps collect your information?
We’ve all searched for something online, then suddenly, you start seeing ads for it everywhere. Search for videos on bicycle maintenance? You start seeing ads for bikes and outdoor equipment. Search for airfare, and you start seeing ads for trips and tours. Search for health advice, and you then see ads for pills and medicines.
Creepy? Yes. Useful? Depends on who you ask.
The technical details are fairly simple. When you visit a website or use an app, the site puts a tiny file on your device. This is called a cookie. Cookies combine with other technology called sessions. With a history of cookies and sessions, a company can build a profile of your preferences and interests, and then make guesses about your gender, age range, location, demographics, etc.
User and session tracking is certainly useful for marketing companies.
It’s about the money
Internet companies make billions of dollars from selling their data profiles on web visitors. Tech companies make money from tracking the apps you use, how often you use them and what you do with your devices.
Other companies purchase this data and use it to show ads to you.
Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Yahoo… They all do it. Plus dozens of data marketing companies you’ve never heard of. You could say that social media companies exist solely for this purpose.
An entire industry exists to track website visitors and app users, and then target ads to you.
Why should you care about your privacy online?
So what? Corporations, internet service providers, advertisers and governments know what you do online. Do you care?
You should, because the data profiles built around your online activity can be used for various purposes. Some good, some bad.
Maybe the airlines know you searched for a destination, and the next time you visit the site, the price will go up. Maybe a health insurance company knows you searched for a medical condition, and they will raise your rates. Maybe your employer finds out about your social media posts, and they decide you’re not the person they need for the job. Maybe your government finds out that you like to think for yourself, and now you’re an enemy of the state.
Google knows what people are searching, what people are thinking in their most private thoughts. Using this data they could even have the ability to predict sociopolitical trends. Amazon knows much of what you’ve purchased and much of what you’ve thought about purchasing. So does your credit card company. Facebook knows your interests and your habits and the people you choose to have as friends (or acquaintances).
These corporations transcend borders and geography, and in some ways, they are more powerful than governments.
What does it cost?
You didn’t pay anything for Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, Snapchat or your WhatsApp. All these services are free to end users. The fact that these services are free means you are paying with your time and your data.
Much of your online data will remain indefinitely, no matter what the terms of service say. Your personal data could be used against you in court, subpoenaed in civil cases or used against you by law enforcement and government agencies.
What can you do to protect your privacy online?
The internet brings many miracles in terms of technology and access to information. Anyone alive today in 2023 has more information available to them than any previous time in history.
At the same time, the internet is the largest, most pervasive surveillance network in the history of the planet. In many ways, search engines and social media know more about you than you do.
What can you actually do to protect your privacy online? Maybe it’s too late. Because using the internet comes with inherent privacy tradeoffs. But you can mitigate the damage. Try to take back some control. Segment your life online. Take your data back from the internet and tech monopolies.
Use these actionable tips to get started!
Use incognito mode
Each web browser comes with a so-called incognito mode, or private mode. Incognito mode creates a new browsing session each time, free of cookies and sessions.
Websites won’t know you visited them before. To companies and trackers, you’ll appear a brand new visitor. And information about your incognito mode won’t be recorded on your computer history.
Note that Incognito does not prevent your ISP, your device OS or your government from knowing the sites you visit!
Use browser profiles
New web browsers like Edge and Chrome allow you to set up different profiles. This is useful for sites where you need to log in. Want to watch YouTube videos without tracking on your main profile? Set up a special YouTube and video profile, with a new Google account.
Using browser profiles lets you segment your online activity.
Run a resource blocker, like uBlock Origin
Third-party cookies, scripts and fingerprinters track you from site to site, keeping a log of which sites and apps you use. What if you could block that crap from loading?
Ad blocking came into its own in the late-2000s, as the amount of trash shoved onto your screen in the form of ads, popups, scams and annoyances became intolerable. Developers and privacy advocates soon realized that we could block all kinds of things, including trackers and scripts and cookies.
Aside from protecting your privacy online, another bonus of resource blocking is that web pages will load faster when you block the extra garbage.
Review your account settings
Most online services will default to allowing your profile to be viewed by the public.
For example, Amazon automatically creates a public profile for you. Your product reviews, ratings, comments, public wishlists and biographical info will be visible here. Set this to private!
Log in and change these options wherever you can. Set your profiles to private, or delete them altogether.
Use a search engine that doesn’t track you
Google, Bing and Yahoo track each and every search. If you’re logged in to their services, this data is linked to your personal account.
Check if your data was leaked in a breach
Tech companies lose control of their databases with worrying frequency. This can be a result of shoddy programming, unpatched vulnerabilities or just plain carelessness. Hackers search these databases and publish the information online.
You can search to see if the email account you used to sign up for services online was included in a data breach. The best site for this – https://haveibeenpwned.com
If you find that an account linked to your email was breached, change your account passwords.
Search your full name, phone number and primary email
You’d be surprised at the amount of information a person can find about you online. Using publicly available information like court records, DMV registration and real estate purchases, data broker companies compile your data into profiles. Then they sell this info online.
Many times, you’ll be able to find your personal data, addresses, phone numbers, family members and more on these sites, with a simple search. You’ll have to contact these companies one by one and request that your data be removed.
Use a VPN
A VPN is a virtual private network. Using a VPN will hide the sites you visit, and ensure your data is encrypted over your ISP and WiFi connections. If a site or service or other actor is tracking you by IP address, a VPN effectively changes your location on the internet.
Using a VPN is a kind of nuclear option and can be a hassle. Recommended only for users that are very concerned about online privacy.
Also, not all VPNs are equivalent, so do your research.
Use email aliases to sign up for online accounts
Was your email address and password leaked in a data breach? If you were using strong passwords and a unique email alias for each account, then no big deal.
Using a unique email alias to sign up for each online service will effectively render the breached data useless.
Limit what you share on social media
Keep in mind that your social media posts are public by default. Are you posting a lot of personal information that someone could use against you in the future? Did you post your phone number and address? Did you post that you are going out of town so that thieves will know the perfect time to stop by your house?
Use social media wisely. Use it to keep in touch with friends and organize your events. But don’t overshare.
Try a different browser
Are you using Google Chrome or Microsoft Edge? These browsers are notorious for the amount of data they collect on your browsing habits. They constantly report your online activity back to their owners.
For a more privacy-oriented web browser, check out Mozilla Firefox. Mozilla is a non-profit, funded by donations and licensing deals. Also consider Brave Browser, which blocks trackers, ads and third-party cookies by default.
Switch to a secure messenger app
The two most popular messaging apps are Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp. Facebook now owns both. In 2021, Facebook forced an update to the WhatsApp terms of service, which will share your personal data from WhatsApp to Facebook.
Remember that Facebook is basically a data collection and ad-targeting company.
Maybe it’s time to try a more secure, private messenger app. Signal and Telegram arose to meet this need, with zero-knowledge encrypted communications.
You’re being tracked. You’re being watched. Your personal data is out there on the web and could come back and bite you someday. So take precautions to guard your privacy online.
Secure your browser and your computer. Review your online profiles and accounts. Take care with what you share online, and search for yourself from time to time. Use incognito mode, browser profiles and a VPN when appropriate. Switch to secure and privacy-oriented services and apps.
Do you have other tips to protect your privacy online? Send us a message or leave a comment here.