A Guide to Internet Privacy: How to Protect Your Privacy Online

Did you know all of your public records can be found on Google in just a few seconds? Here’s how you can protect your privacy online.
Online privacy
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According to an internet privacy poll by Pew Research, 79% of people are concerned about how their data is used by companies, yet 63% have little or no understanding of the regulations concerning their privacy protection.

The truth is, almost every website collects your data, and that data stays with them once you close the tab. Companies can easily track you from webpage to webpage, building highly detailed pictures of your internet activities for advertising and other purposes. This is known as online profiling.

And worse yet, data brokers and people-search sites are constantly pulling your sensitive personal information from state and federal public records, and then publishing them for the world to see — all without your consent.

Even when we aren’t being targeted by companies or data brokers, we share plenty of private information willingly on blogs and social media sites like Facebook and Instagram. This data can also be used to complete the “picture” of you. But how bad can it really get? Is annoying invasive marketing the biggest threat of poor online privacy? Read on to find out.  

Why Online Privacy is Important

Some people think, “If I have nothing to hide, why do I need to worry about online privacy?” The truth is, everything you do online leaves a digital footprint, and this footprint can be used against you.

And when we say everything, we mean everything – from posting on social media to your shopping habits on popular retailers, browsing activities, location data, interaction history with advertisements, downloading free apps, and so much more.

Maintaining online privacy is how you keep you and your family secure, especially today when personal information has never been so easy to access. Having it published on the internet leaves you vulnerable to being exploited by marketers with targeted ads and spam, suffering financial loss as a consequence of identity theft or account takeover, and even facing threats of being harassed, stalked, swatted, or doxxed online.

How Can My Private Information be Exploited Legally?

Some of the biggest players that can (mis)use your data include the government, tech giants and other corporations, marketers, and cybercriminals. In fact, a multi-billion-dollar business has been built around mining, gathering, organizing, and selling your data.

A lot of this goes on behind the scenes, and most consumers don’t know that they’ve consented to this activity by agreeing to terms and conditions. Understanding that this activity isn’t popular, many companies hide these stipulations in dense text. That means consumers agree to this activity without really knowing it. Meanwhile, the companies can say that the consumers legally “agreed” to it.

One of the most egregious (and legal) issues concerning online privacy are data brokers (or “people-search sites”). These sites scrape the internet for as much personal information as possible, and then gather it into profiles that can be easily found in search engines.

As you can imagine, people-search sites make a cybercriminal’s job much easier. They can simply buy access to your profile and begin piecing through all of the personal data within. Sometimes, really sensitive information finds its way into your profile on a people-search site, such as banking numbers or even Social Security numbers. 

Again, this is all technically legal. All these websites are doing is using algorithms to gather information available on the internet. They aren’t concerned with what happens to you if this information gets into the wrong hands. So, understanding how to protect your privacy online is all in your hands – it’s time to take it seriously.

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Risky Internet Habits that Compromise Your Privacy

It has become normal to use many websites a day, and as a consequence, people gravitate toward browser features that make jumping around the internet more convenient. What many people don’t know is that convenience has a price. Let’s take a look at how a need for convenience can put our privacy at risk:

1. Using Login with Google, Apple, etc.

As people begin signing up for more and more services, “single sign-on” features have become very popular. Rather than having to remember unique login credentials for each account, users can just use their Google, Apple, or Microsoft accounts to log into everything. Pretty convenient, right?

Well, there’s a pretty big downside. As far as privacy online is concerned, you’re now sharing even more data with whichever single-sign-on provider you’re using. The other big issue is that if your single-sign-on account is compromised, the cybercriminal now has access to all of the others services you’ve linked to it, which often include banking credentials. 

2. Not Reading Terms & Conditions

Companies know how unlikely it is for consumers to read their terms and conditions before clicking “accept.” Most of us are trying to speed through the sign-up process so we can access whatever service we intend to use. So, we just click “accept” and assume that we’ll be ok.

Hidden away in those long columns of text can be pretty alarming invasions of privacy. For instance, reading the bold print, “Facebook wants to personalize your experience,” might not sound all that bad, but when you read the fine print, you might be uncomfortable with the level of surveillance you’re agreeing to both “on and off” their products.

3. Oversharing on Social Media

It’s hard to know where to draw the line between social media and privacy on the internet. When you’re uploading new pictures, updating statuses, or filling out your profile with new information, it can feel like you’re just sharing these updates with friends.

Unfortunately, you’re also sharing those details with companies and creating new entries in your digital footprint – which could pop up in hundreds of people-search sites for all to see. The take-home point? Be careful what you share, and make sure you think hard about the level of profile privacy settings that suits your lifestyle. In short, always ask yourself what impact your posts will have on your on- and offline privacy. 

Top Internet Privacy Issues to Watch Out for

Even if you’re pretty good about generating strong passwords, maintaining a small digital footprint, and avoiding common internet scams, you may still fall victim to the behind-the-scenes activities that companies legally engage in. Here are a few internet privacy issues that you should know about.

1. Online Tracking

Have you ever wondered how ads can follow you around from one webpage to the next? Or how your browsing activities seem to generate ads for relevant products? Companies can store cookies on your computer to track your activity over multiple sessions and across multiple websites. Over time, these cookies accumulate and help companies build up more detailed profiles of your activities. 

This also includes search engines, which often log your internet activity, interests, and other patterns in your behavior. Since most people use a web browser made by a company that owns a search engine (such as Google Chrome, Firefox, or Edge), these browsers can access your browsing history no matter what search engine you use. 

2. Data Breaches

Even if you take online privacy and security seriously, your personal information may be compromised in a data breach. These are shockingly common and can result in highly sensitive information being exposed to cyber criminals around the world.

According to Statista, just in the first half of 2018, 65% of all data breaches led to identity theft. Data breaches have become even more common and severe since then, so it has never been more important to lock down your accounts.

3. Identity Theft

One of the most dangerous consequences of poor online privacy is identity theft. ID theft occurs when a criminal commits fraudulent activities using your identity. This can include pinning their crimes on you, getting medical care and leaving you with the bill, opening up new lines of credit in your name, and plenty more.

The more accessible your personal information is online, the more vulnerable you are to becoming a target of ID theft. This may start as a phishing scam, social engineering attempt, or passing on malware. The consequences could affect you financially, ruin your credit score, harm your reputation, and even result in a family member losing their identity as well.

4. Mobile Phone Apps

In the world of smartphone apps, you’re usually the product – not the other way around. As the saying goes, nothing is really free, and in the case of apps, your data is paying for the service.  Keep in mind, apps can request access to your location, microphone, camera, contacts, and plenty more. Look through your apps and ask yourself: do you know what company your data is going to and what they’re using it for? And don’t enable any extra permissions unless you absolutely need to! 

Tips to Protect Online Privacy

Now that you know some of the common pitfalls of online privacy, let’s take a look at how you can keep your information out of sight.

  1. Opt Out of People-Search Sites

    You can stop the proliferation of your personal information by removing your information from people-search sites. When it comes to “manual” removal, these sites like to make this process as slow and tricky as possible (so they can keep making money off of your data), but with OneRep’s online privacy protection tool, you can automatically opt out of over a hundred sites.

  2. Be careful about what you post online

    There are plenty of reasons to think twice before sharing something on social media, and privacy is one of them. Some posts can cost you a job or ruin your reputation, and sharing personal information (such as holiday dates or financial data) can be the last bit of data cybercriminals need to begin their attack.

  3. Adjust Your Social Media Privacy Settings

    Photos and other content uploaded to social media platforms are not always secure. That’s why it’s essential to understand how to use the privacy features offered by social media sites. You can tighten your Facebook privacy settings here. If you’re looking to do the same on other social media, check the privacy pages for Twitter, LinkedIn and Instagram.

  4. Prevent Trackers

    To minimize the extent of a company’s tracking abilities, use online privacy protection tools that prevent or delete cookies. We recommend using popular browser extensions like DuckDuckGo to automatically block trackers. Alternatively, you can configure your browser to delete cookies after a certain period of time.

  5. Browse in Incognito Mode

     Most browsers offer incognito or privacy modes, which let you browse the internet with a bit more anonymity. They won’t make your internet browsing privacy completely anonymous like, say, a VPN would. But it’s a big step up from the traditional cookie-filled browsing experience.

  6. Protect your devices and accounts

    To prevent unauthorized access to accounts, make sure you download the latest security updates on your devices, and utilize two-factor authentication and unique passwords for all of your accounts. This will ensure that even if a cybercriminal gets your credentials to one account, they don’t have a master key to all of them.

  7. Take Care of Your Mobile Apps

    Control App Privileges: you don’t have to grant apps access to device privileges in order to use them. Social media apps don’t need access to your contacts anymore than game apps need microphone access. Consider disabling as many privileges as possible. Even if you use a GPS app while driving, you can disable location services until you need it.

    Delete Unused App: not only will cleaning out old apps boost your phone’s performance, it will also make it more secure. After all, if you aren’t regularly updating your old apps, they may have some serious security issues.

    Use encrypted apps for messaging: if you want to protect your messages and their contents, consider using messengers with end-to-end encryption, such as Signal. The popular messaging platform WhatsApp has it too, but knowing its strong ties with Facebook, you may want to seek an alternative.

  8. Turn Off Ad Personalization

     Look through the settings pages for your browser, social media accounts, and shopping accounts for “ad personalization.” Whenever possible, turn it off. While this isn’t a solution to online privacy, it will stop some of your information from being exploited by marketers.

  9. Use a VPN

     If you want to take your online privacy really seriously, you can use a VPN (virtual private network). VPNs give you complete privacy, masking your IP address, encrypting all of your activity, and making everything you do online untraceable. Of course, if you log into a social media account using a VPN, data within that service can still be logged. But activity outside of these services will be entirely anonymous, even to your internet service provider. If you care about internet browsing privacy, a VPN is as good as it gets.

  10. Watch Out for Common Scams

    Always verify links before you click on them, especially if they’re embedded in emails or text messages. We recommended going onto a search engine, searching for the company that the sender claims to be associated with, and visiting the secure link from the search page. This will help you avoid phishing attempts. Just remember: If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

See also: Phone Scams Explained: Protect Yourself From Phone Fraud

Bottom Line

Maintaining privacy on the internet can be intimidating, but if you take the right steps, you can keep your personal information safe, secure, and out of reach from profit-seeking companies and ne’er-do-well cybercriminals.

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Iryna Slabodchykava

Content Strategy Manager at OneRep | LinkedIn

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