9 Simple Tips to Safeguard Your Online Privacy

From social networking sites to online banking services, the Internet is indeed permeating into our lives like never before. Today, on top of desktops and laptops, we are also connecting to the Internet on smartphones, tablets and most other portable devices.

For this reason, it is increasingly important for us to know the right ways to safeguard our privacy whenever we’re connected.

Some of us may feel that online privacy is an illusion because websites infringe upon it so subtly that we don’t even know what they gathered about us. That may be true, but this uncertainty is an even better reason for us to protect ourselves from possible invasions of privacy.

Are there anything else we can do to stay secure while we surf, apart from the basics, like not sharing passwords with others or not providing too much personal info on our social profile, etc? Here are 9 good ways you should consider using.

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1. Turn on private browsing

Many internet websites use technologies such as cookies to capture the Internet Protocol (IP) address of a specific computer before collect information about online activities.

Other than using such data to help them provide optimized and personalized services to the users and better understand the behaviours of visitors to their sites, they may also sell such "digital profiles" to interested parties for their own marketing research, without our prior consent.

To address the growing concern over having our privacy compromised by such acts, major web browsers such as Internet Explorer, Google Chrome and Mozilla Firefox have incorporated a "private browsing" setting in their latest releases.

website cookies
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Put simply, you can prevent the storing of cookies (as well as other details like browsing history and temporary internet files) in your computers by websites and thus make it less likely for unauthorized gathering of info on how you surf the net to occur.

Such a security feature has been made available in Safari 2.0 since 2005, Mozilla Firefox 3.1 & Google Chrome 1.0 in 2008, and Edge / Internet Explorer 8 from 2009.

Turning on private mode in your browser (even on your smartphone) should be your first line of defence when browsing online.

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2. Hide your IP address

As it is still possible for websites to link one’s IP address with the sites he or she visits, you can still be tracked (by your Internet Service Provider, for instance) based on your IP address. If you want even more secure browsing, consider using web proxies such as HideMyAss or the open network / browser Tor.

In a way, your IP address is kind of like your fingerprint in the online universe and what HideMyAss.com and Tor do is that they hide it well so you won’t leave any prints behind no matter which sites you visit.

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Take note, however, that some of these web proxies have questionable security policies and may have access to the very data you wish to keep to yourself. Do your own research before using them.

To sidetrack a little, a bonus for using web proxies or Tor is that you can bypass sites which your ISP has blocked (if any).

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3. Remember to log out

Here’s an alarming fact about Facebook I want to share with you. According to Business Insider, Facebook can track the online activity of users who stay logged on to their Facebook account.

This means, if you happen to leave a Facebook tab opened on your browser as you surf elsewhere, webpages that contain the ‘Like’ button can track and collate data about your activities (even if you didn’t click it).

What’s even more chilling to know is they are no longer doing this through the conventional cookie tracking system where your identity is at best an anonymous IP address; rather, they are now basing it on your unique Facebook user ID.

facebook tracking
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In other words, your online activity can also be consistently monitored across different platforms since your Facebook account can be logged on via any device with an Internet connection.

Internet giants like Facebook, Amazon and Google are generating great revenues from advertising and the information they capture from us is invaluable for their strategies. This is all the more reason to be cautious of how they can subtly rob us of our privacy to their own advantage.

For now, it is best to remember to log out every time you are done with your social networking sites or any other major accounts like Google.

4. Google yourself periodically

Some people may think that the vanity search is narcissistic, but it is more practical than you might think when it comes to online privacy concerns. The internet is indeed free for anyone to post anything or say anything they want, and that includes information and malicious information about you.

If possible, many of us would want to know when someone out there mentions something good or bad about us, so that we can respond to the statements. To enable email updates when new content about you surfaces online, you can use Google Alerts (set it up here).

5. Using Google Alerts

Once there, key in your full name with quotations (e.g. "Michael Poh") and other variations (e.g. Michael P., M. Poh) under Search Query. Set the type of websites you want it to search (news, blogs, video, discussion groups, books or everywhere) and how often you want it to be conducted, as in how often a check is run (a week, once a day or as it happens).

google alerts

Note that there will be others who have the same name as you do, so the results may not even be all about you. You will hence need to sift through the results to see which ones are referring to you.

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What to do next?

In the event that you find some sites posting some of your personal information:

1. Contact the site owners to have the content removed. Google has no say in what content webmasters put into their personal sites, hence you have to take your issue to the owner of the site.

2. If you successfully got the webmaster to remove the content but still see them in Google’s search results, you will need to log in to your Google account and submit a removal request via Google public URL removal tool.

3. If the webmaster is unresponsive or is unwilling to do what you have asked, you can request to Google to not display the page with your information in the search results.

Such a removal request is however bounded by Google’s removal policies and thus not guaranteed. Check out the instructions provided by Google here if you want to remove some content from its search engine.

5. Stay updated on privacy policies

Most websites you encounter have privacy policies available for visitors, indicating what information they collect from your computer and who they will share this to. Because these policies are usually lengthy and full of jargon, people do not actually read them at all.

Most users mistakenly assume that having a privacy policy on a site they visit is as good as having their privacy protected. Truth is, the reason why a website even has a privacy policy is usually because they want to spell out (as clearly as possible) how far they will only go to protect the users’ privacy, so as to excuse themselves for violating the very policy they set.

privacy policy
A lot of reading materials

An interesting and enlightening study conducted by McDonald & Cranor in 2008 found that it takes American Internet users an astonishing 244 hours annually to read online privacy policies word-for-word and 154 hours just to skim through them! This is why it is impossible to ask anyone to read policies everytime they use a new site.

Instead, I am suggesting that you will at least read policies of sites where you purchase products from online. This also applies to social networking or any other sites which you frequently visit or are thinking of joining.

Until we see attempts to simplify privacy policies for laymen like you and me, all we can do is go through them briefly and read the fine print.

Also, keep up-to-date with changes made to your existing memberships to social networking sites like Facebook (which is particularly known for making regular changes to its privacy policy).

What to look out for?

According to Ontario’s Information and Privacy Commissioner, Dr. Ann Cavoukian, you should consider these five W’s when considering your privacy needs:

  • Who wants it and who will have access to it?
  • Why do they want it?
  • What will it be used for?
  • Where will your information be stored?
  • When will your information be used and when will it be discarded?

When you come across sites or any changes with privacy policies you don’t agree with, ask yourself if you really need the membership. If you find that you can’t live without it, then the rule of the thumb is to be conservative with what you divulge about yourself.

They may have no qualms with sharing your personal info to advertisers and their partners, but you cut your losses if you leak fewer details about yourselves for them to reveal.

6. Use StartPage instead of Google

If you’re still pretty concerned about Google tracking your search queries and building a profile for all your online activities even as you use web proxies, try Netherlands-based StartPage, "the world’s most private search engine".

You get to use it like how you would for Google search engine, except that StartPage has made it clear in their privacy statement that it does not record IP addresses or track searches. It still gets search results from Google but serves as an intermediary between you and Google so that you remain anonymous in the process.

If you own an iPhone, iPod Touch or iPad with iOS 4.3 or later, you can also download the Startpage Search app for your browsing needs. The Android version is currently in development.

7. Checking in

Frequent check-ins puts your online and offline privacy in jeopardy and make you an easy target for actual stalkers. Location-based services provided by Facebook, Foursquare, RunKeeper and more let you reveal where you are and what you are doing at a particular time of the day.

Another way of looking at this is someone else can have a rough sense of what your general schedule is like based on the data they have collected from your habitual check-ins.

If you check-in where you live, and announce that you are going off on a trip, it is not hard to put 2 and 2 together and figure out when it is a good time to break into your residence.

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Social media and networks are designed for people to share things about themselves to their peers, but there should be a clear line drawn between your privacy and safety versus your need to feel a sense of belonging and connection with your peers.

8. Revealing location info

Other times though, you can’t help it. The technology involved in location-based apps services is GeoTagging, which traces your location via Global Positioning System (GPS).

This ‘feature’ is pretty much an intrinsic part of many of our digital devices today. It is also present with the snapshots you take with the camera on your GPS-enabled devices.

sharing location

Your location data can be captured, along with other details like date, time, camera settings, etc in the EXIF (Exchangeable Image File) data, stored within the image.

Run a check by going into the Properties of some of your old photos taken with your smartphone and you will find the GPS coordinates of where the photo was taken. Key in the numbers into Google Maps and yes, that’s the exact location where you took the photos!

Bare embedded info

These images when uploaded to photo-sharing sites like Flickr, Photobucket, Facebook or even your blog, can be downloaded by strangers. Yes, the properties, location info, and time stamp included. The obvious solution is to turn off GPS for the device or the camera app to prevent your location from being tagged involuntarily.

Check out how you do so for your camera app in your Android and/or iPhone devices here. Alternatively, you can edit and remove the location information from the photos before posting them online. Here’s a site that will teach you how.

9. Beware of open Wi-Fi hotspots

If I were you, I wouldn’t be so quick to connect to an open Wi-Fi hotspot. By default, open Wi-Fi sources in public areas have no encryption, which means that someone near your location can capture data you transmit online such as your passwords, bank accounts and emails.

This is made worse if you reuse the same passwords for all your online accounts because this means that the hacker just needs to see you logging into one account to be able to access the rest.

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The best prevention you can take is to avoid connecting to unsecured public Wi-Fi connections in public places, such as cafes, hotels, libraries, etc. First of all, you do not know if it’s a legitimate one provided by the shops or buildings there (some hackers set up decoy hotspots with similar names). Secondly, as I have mentioned, your online security and privacy are significantly compromised.

Protect yourself

That said, there are some basic precautions you can take if you’re not ready to give up the convenience of these free Wi-Fi connections:

  1. Turn off file-sharing on your device or computer
  2. Avoid going to sites where you need to log in to your account (e.g. social networking sites, emails or online banking)
  3. If you have to use emails, encrypt them with SSL (Secure Sockets Layer) or TSL (Transport Layer Security)
  4. Make sure to connect to secure channels (addresses starting with "https") if you have to login to some site
  5. To get the best security, set up a VPN (virtual private network).
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