Your online privacy is under the threat of exposure from a wide range of entities and sources. This article will highlight and further explain threats to your online privacy, which ones pose the biggest threats, where they come from, and how to protect yourself as you travel the World Wide Web. Herewith, the top five reasons your online privacy may not be so private. Taking a cue from David Letterman’s famous Top 10 List, this list starts at five and goes down to one.
And the number one threat to your online privacy, the last threat on the list, may surprise you.
Beware hackers, crackers, jackers, phishers, spammers, identity thieves, and other digital con artists
Think WarGames meets House of Games. Well before the invention of the World Wide Web, there were lo-fi con-artists, selling the Brooklyn Bridge to new immigrants, duping some poor sap into the “Spanish Prisoner,” simultaneously shaking your hand and reaching into your back pocket. Today, they write malicious code to hijack your personal data, force you to install “anti-virus” software that is anything but, and send spam about how you won a lottery you don’t remember entering. My, how they’ve evolved! As average Internet users begin to recognize the telltale signs of online scams, miscreants adjust accordingly, adding subtlety to their pitches and targeting marks through the latest innovations of social networking. Some recent Facebook ploys entice users to watch an unbelievably shocking video or take a “free” IQ quiz that require the installation of unfamiliar applications that harvest your personal data – all of it. How to avoid these threats to your online privacy? Simple: Don’t be a sucker. If a free online service looks fishy, seems too good to be true, or wants you to divulge too much personal information, stay away.
Shun commercial entities and Internet marketers
Since the dawn of the online era, the fundamental equation of the Internet has been: advertising = free surfing. It’s the same principle of network television, though noticeably more sophisticated. Much of the value to Internet marketers lies not so much in the ads themselves, but in the ability to track users’ behavioral responses to them. Known as ad tracking, the practice embeds unique cookies in Web browsers, subsequently transmitting information back to the entities behind the delivery vehicle, be it banner, pay-per-click, or email advertisement. Though not always devious, third-party cookies sometimes collect more information about us than we’d like, resulting in a dizzying, who-knows-what online situation. How to protect yourself? Gmail and Yahoo! both provide users with privacy centers where you can opt out of ad tracking. In addition, there are a few programs and services that facilitate the discovery and removal of ad tracking cookies, such as MyPrivacy from ReputationDefender.
Heads up on what little government legislation exists
This is a tricky category, particularly in the United States. While much legislation has been proposed to protect Internet users from various forms of privacy invasion, little has actually happened. One such proposal, a federal “do not track” list (similar to the National Do Not Call Registry) that would prevent Internet marketers from harvesting personal data based on browsing habits, has met with resistance from both lobbyists and regulators, though continues to gain steam as a viable solution. At the same time, the U.S. Department of Justice recently subpoenaed Google and other online search engines for information on user-entered search terms, not in order to identify which users conducted which searches, but gather data on potentially illegal online behavior. The subpoenaed entities complied, in part, though Google would not divulge unique search strings, which can indirectly reveal users’ identities (vanity searches) or related, ancillary information about people (name + something that person did). More of these closed-door legislative battles regarding online privacy will likely take place as time goes on.
Watch out for everyone you know
Unfortunately, the people you know well (family, close friends), sort-of know (coworkers, acquaintances), and barely know (the Facebook “friend” you haven’t seen since third grade), can all potentially expose things about you online, usually without knowing it. With the rise in hacked email and Facebook accounts, invites from friends, status updates, and personal messages may come from others posing as your intimates, like Invasion of the Body Snatchers for the digital age. Although widespread mistrust of your friends is probably the wrong approach, it’s important to take their recommendations with a grain of salt, not limited to the links they tell you to click. More than anything, use your best judgment.
Be careful of…You!
Yes, you. You are the biggest impediment to your online privacy, and can easily expose sensitive data if you don’t maintain a certain degree of vigilance in your digital behavior. Be careful where you surf, which online programs you install, who gets access to your login information, which online entities have your personal data and how much they have. Purchase a trusted, comprehensive anti-virus and Internet security suite. Use different passwords for different sites. Log out of your email, social networking, and online banking accounts before you browse. Pay attention to the warning signs of an attack site, suspicious email, or unfamiliar program; if it seems sketchy, assume it is and keep your distance. Above all, don’t be lazy. By the same token, don’t be afraid. Although the Internet is a big place, not all of it is designed to do you harm. With these tips in mind, avoid threats to your online privacy.