The digital world can prove a hazardous place for personal information these days. If the growing number of hackers don’t steal data and media you assumed was safe, then advertisers legally take it and use it for their own purposes. If those waiting advertisers don’t get to you, the NSA may utilize loopholes to collect your data for their own spy-oriented reasons.
Online Privacy is Still Achievable
While the Internet continues to look like a shark-infested sea, the growing awareness of risks has also led to a better understanding of online privacy, and how to protect your stuff. Let’s distill down to four basic tips for online activity:
1. Assume Nothing (Really, Nothing) is Safe
When a site or service promises complete safety or anonymity, take this with a grain of salt. No information online is absolutely safe. As long as servers are connected to the wider Internet, your data may be vulnerable. One of the best cases in point is SnapChat, the rapidly growing private social app that allows people to send pics, messages and other media to specific friends — then deletes that media permanently a few seconds after it has been opened and viewed.
While SnapChat and its ilk sound refreshingly safe, they are not. A swift reaction can screensave a SnapChat and store an image of it forever. SnapChat’s own servers have already been hacked, giving hackers access to accounts and the information passed through them, which can be decrypted.
The lesson here is clear. Companies store your personal information, and companies are frequently hacked. So guard your online privacy. Keep track of your bank accounts, check your credit, and understand that even using a debit card or signing up for a general online service can put you at risk.
A quick note here about smartphones is useful — smartphones and similar mobile devices typically have their own encryption settings that are either automatically included (as in iPhones) and easy to enable (as in Android OS). However, the apps you download may still have security flaws, so download carefully, and brush up on your remote wipe skills if your phone is stolen. Otherwise, be smart and use a login code.
2. Set Up Basic Email Protection
Get into the habit of signing out of your email accounts when you stop using them — this small step can help protect any devices you use out in public. Most email options also use some form of additional protection that requires confirmation if someone tries to access your email from a new, strange device. Enable this security, usually called “2-step authentication,” to protect all your cloud data in your email.
3. Protect Your Social Media Accounts the Smart Way
Chances are good you have at least a couple social media profiles to manage. The primary problem with social media privacy is that guidelines, features, and the best security tips are in flux, varying according to network and update. But here’s the good news: Nearly every social media network around these days has setting options to help increase your online privacy– but keep in mind that what you post online tends to stay online, often in ways you would not suspect. Post assuming the world will see it, and your privacy will get a big boost.
For Google Plus, you’ll want to go to settings and set your info to low visibility. While you are at it, opt out of shared endorsements, web tracking, and other intrusive features. For Facebook, head over to privacy settings and edit the three major sections — who can see your posts, who can contact you, and who can use your contact information. Keep your posts and photos for friends only to help preserve as much privacy as possible, and hold search engine connections at arm’s length.
If you are on Twitter, choose a private setting so that your tweets can only be viewed by your follows, and so that you can manage your followers as you want. However, if you are using Twitter for a practical purpose like increase your brand and drawing in new followers on purpose, it may be better to keep your profile public and keep your Tweets innocuous, free of personal information.
4. Take Action Against Old-Fashioned Browser Spying
But what about browser spying? What about those companies and government agencies peeking over your shoulder as you move from site to site? On one hand, this sort of spying is less likely to lead to identity theft and hacked accounts. On the other hand, it can still be annoying and unnerving.
Clearing your browser history and cookies is the traditional method of preserving some privacy, and it is still somewhat effective. It is also advisable to stay on sites (especially sites where you are buying something) that have the green security lock sign and the “https” address. This shows that the site has been encrypted, add an extra and very welcome layer of security on what you do there. There are some independent projects you can investigate that offer broader https encryption for all your browsing if you are interested. Otherwise, consider useful plugins like the Firefox-friendly Lightbeam, which gives you a real-time look at what sites are tracking your online activities.
Photo Credit: Perspecsys.com