Top Five Privacy Tips to Protect Your Online Data
Are parasitic aliens lurking on the Internet, seeking to steal your privacy and replace you with an emotionless, online clone? Well, I sure hope not, but the reality of electronic privacy falls closer to Jack Finney’s vision of imposter “pod people” than most people realize. Simply replace parasitic aliens with unscrupulous online trackers and pod people with stolen identities.
Using the five privacy tips to protect your online datat below, however, you can significantly decrease the likelihood of falling victim to those who seek to use your personal data to exploit you.
Tip 1. Beware of free or open Wi-Fi connections.
Open Wi-Fi connections at cafés and hotels are a boon for travelers, but they’re also a gold mine for data and identity thieves. Any time you connect to the Internet using unprotected Wi-Fi, anyone on that network can see your data. The process of spying on Wi-Fi users has been trivial for years, but the Firefox extension Firesheep makes it even easier. If you’ve got the tech savvy to check sport stats online, Firesheep gives you the ability to destroy someone’s electronic privacy.
To avoid this pitfall, consider doing a few of the following things:
- Avoid open Wi-Fi networks altogether.
- Restrict yourself to relatively harmless activities like reading the news, eschewing anything that requires a login, such as email or banking.
- Use email, but make sure to use SSL/TSL.
- Connect only to login-requiring websites if they have addresses starting in “https.” That final “s” is very important. It means that you’re connected via secure channels. Also check for a padlock symbol somewhere on your browser (the location varies from browser to browser). That symbol indicates that the secure channel actually functions as it’s supposed to.
- Consider investing in a VPN (virtual private network) service, if you travel a lot and are a heavy Internet user. When connecting to a VPN, all information transmitted from your computer, regardless of the privacy settings of the network you’re on, will be encrypted.
Tip 2. Protect your browser against malware.
In the past most viruses targeted your operating system, but nowadays the browser is the bigger prize for hackers. The list of ways that malware authors break into your browser and violate your electronic privacy grows by the day. One of the scariest is the “drive-by download,” where malicious code installs itself automatically when you visit a compromised website. However, a foolproof defense against browser exploits like drive-by downloads does exist: sandboxing.
When a browser is sandboxed, it can only access the few resources necessary to do its job. Any other piece of software that tries to install itself, such as a virus, will be blocked. To date, only one browser includes sandboxing by default: Google Chrome. The Chrome browser also sandboxes the ubiquitous Flash plugin, providing yet another level of protection.
For other browsers, you need to take sandboxing precautions into your own hands. For Windows users, the Sandboxie program allows you to sandbox anything running on your machine, and you should sandbox both your browser and your Flash installation.
Tip 3. Watch what and how you share online.
You can do a lot to protect your privacy by keeping your social media profiles sealed. Set your Facebook profile to the strictest privacy settings available, and share information only with people you know and trust. Never post personal details like your address or phone number on a social networking website, or anywhere else online.
Similarly, when you comment on someone else’s blog or on a user forum, take steps to ensure your digital privacy. Set up a separate email account simply for this purpose. Don’t use your full name for commenting, and make sure your full name isn’t included in the email address used. For example, if your name is Bryan Broadwick, you might use an email address like ”email@example.com” with a user name such as “BB JA.” That way, even if the other website employs poor security practices and gets hacked, none of your personal information will be revealed, and your privacy will remain protected. Keep these privacy tips to protect your online data in mind.
Tip 4. Opt out of third-party tracking cookies.
With the US Congress debating a potential “do not track” registry for online marketers, a lot of attention has been paid to third-party tracking cookies and how they can compromise your electronic privacy. There are two things you can do right now, regardless of any new privacy laws, to protect yourself from online trackers.
First, set your browser to reject all third-party cookies. This means that only websites you visit will be able to collect data on you, minimizing the possibility of an unscrupulous tracker stealing your personal information via a malicious ad embedded on the websites you visit.
Second, install opt-out cookies. The FTC has mandated that online marketers make opt-out cookies available to protect your privacy. The World Privacy Forum provides a comprehensive list of these cookies and where to get them; there are a few dozen you’ll need to install.
Tip 5. Treat your phone like a computer.
Increasingly, your smartphone tempts privacy snatchers. Smartphones have access to your email, address book and many other sensitive pieces of data yet rarely sport any privacy controls. If you use an Android or BlackBerry phone, you can add phone-based privacy protection by installing an app like Lookout Mobile Security. Make sure to couple this antimalware measure with a phone password in case the device should be lost or stolen. And always read the fine print before installing any new apps. Security software on your phone, like your computer’s antivirus, can’t protect you if you ignore security warnings and install the app anyway. Use these privacy tips to protect your online data.
Clement Lefebvre is an experienced writer with expertise in online reputation management and Internet privacy. He is also an experienced academic and scientific editor.