In recent years, privacy has been under attack. Governments the world over have established programs to observe people’s online activities and record personal data. They range from mild, largely passive surveillance, such as the U.S. National Security Agency collecting emails and calls bound for recipients abroad, to the invasive use of censorship and monitoring in places such as China.
Aside from the government, your internet service provider can see everything you do online if you’re not taking the proper precautions. Plus, many companies are interested in tracking your activity across the web and do so using several methods.
Odds are you don’t want people seeing everything you search and every website you visit, and understandably, you wouldn’t want companies and the government doing so, either. In this online privacy guide, we’re going to take an in-depth look at how those entities track you online, monitor your activities and what you can do to stop it.
How To Protect Your Privacy Online
- Use a VPN to keep your browsing anonymous.
- Use a password manager so you can use more secure passwords
- Use antivirus software to get rid of malware and cookies
- Use online backup so even if you get infected, you can just restore your files
- Avoid Google’s search engine
- Avoid social media, especially Facebook
Privacy Under Attack
We’ll start with the most terrifying and severe enemy of your privacy: the government. It seems that over time we’ve inched closer to a more 1984-like reality, with governments in many countries lobbying for reduced online security for citizens by weakening the kinds of encryption that can be legally used.
Some agencies, such as the FBI, have also tried to get companies to design devices with exploitable backdoors that’ll let the agencies get into them. Companies have been reluctant to do so, knowing that the backdoor will not only be used by those “benevolent” government agencies, but it’ll also put their users’ data at risk of hackers and other malicious bodies.
Looking past the looming government threat at something much more immediate, your ISP can log everything you do online. As of 2017, it can even sell that information without repercussions in the U.S.
Companies interested in that information have developed methods of analyzing the data that paint a clear picture of who you are, what you like and how you live. They can get a good idea of personal information such as your income, where you went to school and even where you live, just by analyzing what you put into search engines.
That’s not to mention that most people have an Amazon Alexa device, Google Home or even just a smartphone that’s listening in at all times. As you read about in a recent State of the Cloud, those kinds of systems record and know a startling amount of sensitive information about you, as well as linking it all to your social media accounts.
Knowing that practically every company and your own government wants your data and has a million ways to get it can be terrifying. Luckily, it’s just as easy to arm yourself with knowledge and protect your privacy as it is for others to invade it.
Threats to Privacy
Because privacy threats come from many sources, the methods employed to invade your personal cyberbubble are numerous.
The significance of each threat varies depending on what you do online. Though locking down your web browser and internet will be most important for the average user, someone who torrents things might want to take more steps toward protecting their anonymity.
Before we get into the methods you can use to protect yourself, though, let’s look at some of the ways your privacy can be violated because knowing your enemy is half the battle.
Tracking and Browser Fingerprinting
One of the simplest ways that websites can follow you around the web and observe your online behavior is by keeping an eye on your browser fingerprint. It’s straightforward for websites to see a long list of software and hardware details about your computer, such as which version of which web browser you’re running, the resolution your monitor is set to and many other specs.
Though thousands of other people will visit a given website with Google Chrome every day, for example, not many will have the same combination of Chrome version number, extensions installed, Windows version number and other specs and settings that you have. In many cases, that creates a unique combination of information that becomes your browser fingerprint.
Websites such as Panopticlick and Am I Unique are great for seeing how distinguishing your browser fingerprint is. Those websites can show you how much information about your computer is visible to websites and how rare that fingerprint is.
Though a more secure web browser can help with that, one of the best things you can do is use multiple web browsers for different applications. For example, you could use Mozilla Firefox for accessing Facebook and Google Chrome for everything else.
That way, you can prevent Facebook from knowing about something private that you checked out on WebMD and WebMD from finding out your identity from Facebook.
There’s no lack of options when it comes to free tools that can help protect your privacy from those and other threats. You can read about them in our 99 tools to protect your privacy roundup.
Public WiFi isn’t just prolific, it’s practically expected at every location from high-end hotels to the local McDonald’s. That’s why most people wouldn’t think twice about connecting to a router called “Hotel X WiFi” or “Restaurant Y WiFi.”
That’s a mistake. It’s easy, common even, for cybercriminals to set up bait WiFi networks in places where people are likely to connect to them. Then, as you go about your business, that person can filter through your online traffic, look at your activity and take things such as financial information with ease.
We looked at this issue in greater detail in our dangers of public WiFi article, but luckily, it’s an easy problem to fix with a VPN, which we’ll look at shortly.
As we discussed, your ISP, much like the bait WiFi we looked at, acts as a middleman for your online interactions. That’s because your computer must first access a DNS server that is, in almost all cases, run by your ISP. That allows them to keep logs of where you were headed and what you were up to online when you went through the DNS server.
To make matters worse, many ISPs have a track record of selling that information to almost anyone who asks. They can also hand the records to authorities for investigations or other companies if they suspect violations of copyright laws.
Again, this is easy to remedy. A great start is to manually change your DNS, and that’s simple to do. You can switch from being routed through your ISP’s DNS server to a more secure third-party option, such as Cloudflare’s 188.8.131.52.
Another kind of threat to your online privacy is browser hijacking. It’s a technique that cybercriminals use to change subtle, or in some cases not subtle, settings in your browser, such as the default search engine.
That allows them to reroute much of your internet traffic through their search engine or website and collect a lot of information about you. Other forms of browser hijacking include changing your homepage and even changing your default browser.
Luckily, Microsoft has made strides to prevent that by adding a check in Windows that involves user approval before those changes are made automatically. That’s a great example of the importance of keeping an eye on things and exercising common sense when it comes to online privacy.
Microsoft found that, despite the extra check for approval, those attacks persisted because people didn’t read the warning Windows offered and clicked “yes” on impulse. Keeping an eye on windows that pop up while you browse and being aware of which websites you’re on goes a long way toward improving cybersecurity.
Protecting Your Privacy
Now that we’ve looked at the main ways your privacy can be violated, let’s look at some things you can do to protect yourself. Again, not all of these will be necessary for everyone.
Depending on what you do online and which kinds of security breaches you’re most concerned with, different measures can be put in place to protect yourself.
Use a VPN
A VPN, or virtual private network, is a way that you can mask your internet activity to look like something different from what it is. That can not only throw off middlemen, such as your ISP or those watching you from public WiFi, but also companies that are trying to track you from website to website using a browser fingerprint.
Basically, a VPN works by bouncing your internet connection through a server somewhere else in the world to make you appear as though you’re someone else from somewhere else.
That can distort what your ISP or someone with fake public WiFi sees. On their end, it’ll look like you’re connecting from the VPN server and your trail will effectively end there. That prevents them from knowing which websites you’re accessing.
Websites will no longer see you as having your own IP address, but will instead see the IP address of the VPN server, which will obscure you from many forms of tracking. That can also be used to get around things such as China’s Great Firewall, which enforces censorship of the country’s internet.
The sheer utility of VPNs and the massive increase in privacy they offer means that the market is flooded with options. Some are good, and some aren’t. If you’re curious to see what it’s like to use a VPN, there are several free VPN services with limited capabilities. That said, many have questionable privacy policies that could let them sell your information just like your ISP would.
There are also tons of paid VPNs if you’re willing to take the next step, so we urge you to check out our best VPN roundup. Alternatively, you can head straight to our ExpressVPN review to see why it’s our top recommendation.
Use a Password Manager
Almost everyone knows the basics of account security, like setting up a strong password rather than just using “password1” or something along those lines. Unfortunately, the basics of password security also include using different passwords on different websites and changing your password every so often for important accounts.
With the hundreds of accounts that most people have online, it’s practically impossible to manage the number of passwords and change them manually as often as you should. That’s where dedicated password management software comes in.
Though most web browsers have the ability to save your passwords for you, a good password manager will generate strong passwords, offer unique passwords for every website, change passwords when they grow too old and even alert you to suspicious activity.
Plus, most password managers will encrypt your information and even use a zero-knowledge setup that prevents the password manager operator from seeing your private information, even though it’s stored on its server.
Password managers also offer two-factor authentication, making it harder for unwanted visitors to see your passwords and information, which is much more than any built-in browser password manager can say.
If you’re interested in reaping the benefits of a password manager and making your online life more secure and faster, head to our best password manager article. If you’re looking for a more direct recommendation, though, read our Dashlane review to see why we love it.
Using an Antivirus
One of the improvements to cybersecurity and online privacy that most people are familiar with is an antivirus. Viruses cover many online threats that can range from ransomware, which steals your information in exchange for a ransom, to trackers planted in your browser.
A good antivirus can go a long way toward preventing that kind of thing from happening, and many antiviruses sport a lot of additional features that further improve overall security by helping to prevent botnet and browser hijacking attacks.
Though there are tons of free antivirus software options, many of them lack the broader features that the best paid antivirus software has. Our top pick when it comes to antiviruses is Bitdefender, which you can read about in great detail in our Bitdefender Antivirus review.
Backing up your data is important and, in many cases, already being done for you. Android and iOS devices backup some pictures and sometimes other data in the cloud.
Backing up data is not only important for sentimental reasons but also for things such as record keeping. There are plenty of high-profile cases of celebrities having their iCloud accounts hacked and sensitive images taken.
The type of data and level of risk associated with it will determine which kind of cloud storage service might be best for you. Whether you’re looking for a business solution or just want to backup photos and cherished memories, there are tons of options to choose from.
Other Privacy Tips
Aside from the major things, such as a VPN, antivirus and password manager, there are many ways to protect your online privacy that only take a minute or two to do.
For one, it’s easy to block most trackers with a simple extension, such as Ghostery. It’s free and can be setup in less than a minute. It blocks trackers on the web from gathering information about your browsing habits and shows you the trackers it detects on a given website, which helps you know which companies are interested in your browsing history and what exactly they’re tracking.
Another popular privacy option for those concerned about spying is an encrypted messenger, such as Pidgin. Encryption is a powerful tool for privacy and, in many cases, practically impossible for even government supercomputers to see through, adding tons of security to your messages.
Some search engines are also better than others. If you’d prefer Google doesn’t track you, for example, you could use DuckDuckGo, a very secure alternative.
As an added bonus, we’d like to recommend that you go easy with what you share on social media. Though Facebook and the like are pretty important to a lot of people, every single social media platform shares your information to third parties. Being cautious means there’s less to sell.
The coming years will be telling when it comes to online privacy. Luckily, there are many advocates for online privacy who are fighting hard to keep the internet free from snooping and spying.
Unfortunately, there are just as many people and groups who are dead set on getting your information. Their methods are well-documented, though, and not outside the understanding of well-informed people.
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Though we only scratched the surface in this article, we covered the aspects that can make you significantly more anonymous online. We provided links throughout to help guide you in the right direction to learn more, and we hope you can walk away feeling armed with the knowledge to start taking your privacy into your own hands.
If you’ve used any of the software we mentioned we’d love to hear about your experience in the comments below, and as always, thanks for reading.