Complete Beginner’s Guide to Internet Safety & Privacy
Privacy matters. Even if you think you have nothing to hide, it’s in your best interest to make your privacy a priority. Most people don’t discuss privacy on the internet with their friends. “More than three-quarters of adult internet users (78 percent) are concerned about their privacy while using the internet, and more than 8 of 10 (84 percent) worry about having their personal information hacked or stolen,” according to a nationwide survey conducted by AARP.
Who Are You Protecting Yourself From?
Privacy laws vary by country. While your own government may not be spying on you, another country might be. After World War II, Five Eyes began as an intelligence alliance to watch the communication of the former Soviet Union. Members use it to keep an eye on other countries’ citizens, which Edward Snowden revealed in 2014.
Most ISPs (internet service providers) harvest user data. A group of smaller providers recently wrote a letter opposing the changes in the FCC’s privacy rules allowing ISPs to harvest and sell this data. Do some research to determine how your provider uses your data. Unfortunately, many people are stuck with only one or two choices for broadband providers.
ISPs, along with search engines, hope to use the data they acquire to reach customers with more targeted advertisements. Ars Technica explains that ISPs want to become “advertising powerhouses,” on the same level as Google and Facebook.
Companies like Facebook and Google aren’t the only ones who can access an uncomfortable amount of data about you online. Hackers also find ways to access information that you want to keep confidential.
Advertisers may not directly collect your information, but they are certainly using it to target you with ads. Keeping your information private from them stops companies from maliciously targeting you with ads, known as malvertising.
Which Information Should You Keep Private?
We spend a large percentage of our lives online. The personal information we put on the internet is increasing. With so much information out there, which information should you worry about?
Metadata is the descriptive information about our communications and activities. It allows for government agencies and other organizations to make inferences about you without actually listening to your phone calls or monitoring your computer. Because many of the privacy laws that the NSA and internet companies fall under are outdated, their application to metadata is unclear. This information can be used to determine someone’s location via their devices without directly “tracking” them.
Keeping your passwords private is an obvious addition to this list. However, using strong passwords is just as important as keeping your passwords private and secure. If you are using a short and predictable password, it will be vulnerable to brute force attacks. It’s a good idea to use longer and more complex passwords, with a reputable password manager to store them. This way you can use a different password for each service without having to remember them all.
Keeping your financial information safe on the internet can be overwhelming, especially if you are accustomed to doing a lot of online shopping. It is important that you only share this information on secure websites that you trust and that use HTTPS (SSL encryption). Breaches in financial information can lead to identity theft and can damage your credit.
According to the Independent, medical records are more valuable to criminals than financial data, as the theft of such records often gives them time to plot out what they will do next – create false avatars to gain access to medical insurance or payments, or leverage personal information against someone.
Because medical records don’t have to same protection as financial records or online banking, people who have suffered a breach may not be aware until the damage has been done.
Your communications reveal endless details about your relationships and behavior. Because many of the services you may be using to chat with your friends can actually track and store the content of your conversations, they pose major privacy risks. Luckily there are more private and secure alternatives to Facebook Messenger or Google Hangouts. Some of the more popular ones are Signal, Telegram, and Confide. iMessage, available on Macs and iOS devices also uses end-to-end encryption, so only you and the person you’re talking to have access to your messages.
Browsing history may seem like a minor issue, if you are the only one using your computer. However, your internet behavior is used by any website that may be tracking you. If you often visit websites about a certain hobby of yours, then you will likely be shown more ads related to the topic. Keeping your browsing private on public computers is more important, because the next user may be able to gather information based on what you’ve left behind.
If you make privacy a priority, keeping your browsing history confidential is a good place to start. It’s often after someone stumbles upon your browsing history that you realize it would have been a good idea to keep that information hidden.
How to Protect Your Privacy on the Internet
Use a Private Search Engine
Private search engines, unlike the major search engines on the market, deliver reliable search results without sharing tons of your information. The big search engines (Google, Yahoo!, Bing) collect at least your IP address, the time and date of your search, your search term, and the cookie ID of your browser/computer. And in many cases, they will continue to track you once you’ve left their site.
Using private search engines helps maintain your privacy, while still helping you find what you’re looking for. Recently these search engines have seen massive growth.
Use a VPN
VPNs are popular for circumventing school and office internet censorship. However, they also offer privacy protection for their users (hence the name, Virtual Private Network). These tools essentially move your internet connection to a different location so that you aren’t easily identifiable to the websites that track you.
And by combining a VPN with a private search engine, you are adding even more privacy protection to your internet browsing.
Use Tracker Blockers/Enable Do Not Track
Most websites have some sort of tracking. This data is mainly used to determine who its users are and for advertising purposes. Tracking capabilities and methods have grown much more advanced in recent years.
Not only do tracking scripts slow down your browser, but they are also a privacy concern. If every website you visit tracks you in some way and then stores this data, that creates many vulnerabilities for your information to get into the wrong hands.
Use a More Secure Operating System (MacOS or Linux)
Choosing an operating system that is private by design makes it much easier to keep your information under control. It is definitely possible to maintain your privacy using other operating systems, like Windows, but doing so adds unnecessary complication.
Use a Better Browser
Your internet browser is the link between the sites you visit and your computer. Using a browser with lousy privacy features, opens your computer up to threats. We recently shared this list of the “Best Web Browsers for Privacy“. The top three private browsers are: Tor Browser, Mozilla Firefox, and Brave. Both Chrome and Firefox have tons of privacy-focused extensions available.
Use Private Email Providers & Messaging Services
If you’re currently using an email account that is linked to a search engine, say Gmail or Yahoo!, your searches can be linked to your email address. This is an issue because it adds another identifiable data point to your web searches. Similar to email services provided by search engines, messaging services connected to social media accounts or search engines are tracked. This tracking ranges from the time of your messages, who you’re communicating with, and even the contents of your messages.
Delete Old Emails
If your email account is hacked, or if someone gets access to your password, your old emails could contain sensitive information. Be sure to delete your old emails if you no longer need them, especially if they contain banking information or your social security number.
Use Private Browsing Modes
While private browsing modes aren’t perfect, and can’t protect your privacy on their own, they can be valuable tools within a lineup of privacy tools. Mozilla Firefox recently upgraded their privacy-enhanced mode by adding tracker blocking.
Use Privacy-Based Browser Add-Ons
- Ad-Blocker – In 2016, Google removed over 900,000 ads containing malware, and 112 milltion “trick to click” ads that install unwanted software on your device. Google and other ad providers have cleaned up the ads they offer, but some negative ads still slip through the system. By blocking ads you eliminate this risk and can even speed up your browser.
- Script Blockers – Blocking scripts running in the background of websites helps protect your information. While some of these scripts may be essential to a page’s functionality, others are there simply to track your information. Using an extension, like Privacy Badger, to block scripts will prevent these scripts from tracking you and following you from site to site.
Encryption (and HTTPS) is Essential
Encryption plays a huge role in protecting your information on the internet. Google is even making websites switch to SSL encryption (HTTPS), or risk being blocked for Chrome users. If information isn’t encrypted, anyone monitoring the network can see the information that is sent from your computer to the websites you visit. If you are sharing payment information or other private data, make sure the website is secure and uses HTTPS.
Update your Devices Often
Updates help protect your information and private data. These updates contain security patches for weak spots in your system. Leaving your phone or computer running outdated software may lead to data breaches.
Use Strong Passwords & Password Managers
If your password is your last name or your birthday, change it. Those types of passwords are easy to guess for anyone who has access to your computer or for hackers trying to crack into your accounts. Password managers make it easy to use strong passwords, because you don’t have to remember all of your passwords.
Read More: Best Password Managers
Enable Two-Factor Authentication
Two-Factor Authentication is when a service requires two means of verifying your identity when logging in. Rather than just asking for a password, you may also receive a code via text to enter before being granted access. This protects you in the event your password does get hacked.
Use Social Media Carefully
Social media websites are made to gather your data and use it to target you with ads. Facebook, among other social networks, has come under fire repeatedly over user-privacy concerns. Social media giants have mastered gathering data about their users. There are some more private alternatives to the major social networks.
Limit Mobile App Tracking/Permissions
Because mobile apps run on your smartphone, they can reveal a more complete and intimate representation of your behavior than a desktop app. Many mobile apps have privacy settings, but they aren’t always obvious. Be sure to opt out of any tracking, and enable any privacy-enhanced modes.
Avoid Public WiFi
While public WiFi networks provide great convenience for people working from a coffee shop or a library, however there are big security risks whenever you connect to these networks. Norton, an anti-malware software, lists the following risks on its blog:
- Man-in-the-Middle attacks – These attacks are when someone is able to access the connection between your computer and a website. This allows them to view your web activity without you knowing.
- Unencrypted networks – On these networks, your information is sent in plain-text, rather than in encrypted form. This means anyone with access to the network and see what is sent back and forth between your computer and the network.
- Malware distribution – Because anyone can access these networks, hackers may use public WiFi to inject malware onto your computer, without you noticing.
- Snooping and sniffing – Snooping and sniffing uses software kits and devices to allow someone to eavesdrop on WiFi signals. This allows for hackers to access your log in credentials and other information you may enter into a webpage.