Over the last 3 decades, the Internet has transformed everyday life in ways no one could have imagined. Simple tasks we now accomplish in seconds could take hours or days in the pre-Internet age.
But the Internet has a dark side. It’s much harder to maintain personal privacy. You have everyone from hackers and curious strangers, to government security agencies and online retailers trying to capture as much personal information about you as they can.
While solutions such as a log visualization tool can help, there’s no single magical solution to maintaining your privacy on the worldwide web. However, there are things you can do that would make it harder for someone to access and track your information.
1. Avoid Free Web-based Email
You and perhaps almost everyone you know, has a Gmail, Yahoo Mail, Hotmail or Outlook webmail account. The key attraction is not just the fact that you can access your email account wherever you are but also because it’s free. Gmail is especially attractive because an account gives you access to 15GB of free cloud storage — and certain file uploads such as Word documents and photos do not count toward memory usage.
But none of these perks are truly free. Google and other webmail providers use the information you provide to ensure targeted advertising. Some service providers (especially US-based ones) also explicitly provide access to or have been hacked by security agencies. If you must use internet email, go for a paid service. Even then, do not use it to communicate or store sensitive personal information.
Conversations around encryption were once the exclusive domain of tech geeks. A lot has changed since those early years. Various tools have made encryption much more accessible to the average person by taking away the mystery from the process. There are open source plugins for email programs that can make encryption, decryption, signing and verifying messages a walk in the park.
There are full disk encryption applications that render the content of your hard disk unreadable to unauthorized parties. While encryption will protect you from most threats, it will not necessarily keep your information safe from government authorities who have the means to crack the encryption keys or obtain authorization from the courts to demand the encryption keys.
3. Protect Your Social Media Accounts
The average internet user spends considerably more time on social media sites than they do on other websites and mobile apps. Consequently, social media accounts, and especially Facebook which is by far the largest, contain an enormous amount of personal information. It doesn’t help that Facebook has since acquired Instagram and WhatsApp thus gaining access to not just a person’s details such as their name, email address, birth date, physical address, education, workplace, and relatives but also their photos and messages.
Following relentless pressure from governments and privacy activists, platforms like Facebook have given users more control over the privacy of their accounts. Ideally, you should tinker with the settings so you can keep your posts and profile details hidden from everyone except your friends. In addition, avoid sharing content that can be categorized as personally identifiable information.
4. Turn Off Bluetooth and Wireless
Keep Bluetooth and WiFi turned off by default on mobile devices. Only switch them on when you explicitly require them. Even if someone isn’t able to log into your phone via Bluetooth, they can tell the device model (which is usually its default Bluetooth name) and therefore have the basic information needed to either hack into the phone or launch a social engineering attack.
Similarly, beware of public WiFi. If you must use public WiFi, make sure any site you visit uses HTTPS (which is encrypted) as opposed to HTTP. There are easily available tools that a third party can use to eavesdrop on unencrypted HTTP web sessions.
Accessing the internet inevitably means putting some of your personal information out there. These tips can reduce the chances of a malicious party accessing and misusing your personal data.