Fresh start: 5 simple things you can do today to protect your privacy online

5 ways to protect privacy

This is Part 2 of our “Fresh Start” series, a collection of straightforward guides to help you rebuild your personal cybersecurity from the ground up. Read Part 1. 

Every day, we pay for the cost of digital convenience with our privacy.   

The currency, of course, is personal data. Sometimes, it’s a reciprocal transaction, like when we install a social media app on our phone. We install the app knowing that our information will be harvested, aggregated, and likely sold off to marketers and advertisers.   

In other scenarios, the erosion of privacy is less obvious, like when governments quietly conduct mass surveillance on the population; or, at the other end of the scale, like when someone plugs in your USB drive and starts snooping through your vacation pics.   

It’s easy to think that we’ve all but relinquished our right to privacy. But by making a few simple changes to your devices and rethinking how you interact online, it is still possible to maintain a good level of control over your privacy.

Here are five things you can do today to start taking control of your online privacy. 

1. Secure your browser

Why: Your online activity is constantly being tracked and used by marketers to measure website performance and create targeted ads. Through the use of cookies and pixel trackers, websites can collect a wide range of information about you, including your location, what you click on, how long you spend on a page, the devices you use and more. Over time, as more of your browsing activity across different sites is aggregated, advertisers can get a startlingly accurate view of your interests, shopping habits and personal life. 

How: Installing the following browser extensions can dramatically increase your privacy and reduce your online footprint. 

2. Avoid invasive tools and software 

Why: Privacy and data management policies vary significantly between vendors. Many web-based tools will attempt to collect your data under the guise of providing a personalized experience, while some developers of free software will often try to recoup their costs by selling your data to third-party advertisers or bundling their applications with potentially unwanted programs (PUPs). 

How: Before you use an online service or install software on your device, read the fine print to ensure you understand what you’re getting yourself into. Switching from your usual services to one of the more privacy-conscious solutions below can help you keep your data where it belongs. 

3. Take control of your mobile devices 

Why: Some apps play fast and loose with device permissions and may collect more data than they need to function correctly. Meanwhile, failing to secure your mobile device could result in an unauthorized user gaining access to your online accounts and personal data stored both locally on the device and in cloud-based services. 

How: Hope for the best, plan for the worst. The following best practices can help you secure your mobile devices and prevent your personal data from falling into the wrong hands. 

4. Protect your digital social life

Why: One of the biggest threats to your online privacy is… you. The amount of personal information we willingly divulge on social media poses a serious privacy threat as it gives attackers an easy way to collect sensitive information that could be used to commit identity theft or fraud. A motivated attacker could potentially use the information you share online to open new accounts in your name, hack your accounts or send highly personalized phishing scams to your friends and work colleagues. 

How: A combination of smart privacy settings and limiting what you share online can help protect your privacy on social media. Start with the following practices: 

5. Set up guest accounts

Why: As a hospitable host, you probably don’t think twice before giving out your Wi-Fi password to guests. What you may not realize is that connecting new users to your home network could pose a serious privacy and security risk. While your guests probably aren’t going to intentionally be snooping around your files, there’s a chance they could accidentally stumble upon your personal documents or inadvertently spread malware to your network. 

How: Setting up guest accounts allows you to restrict access to your network and your devices. It’s free and easier than it sounds. 

Everyone has the right to privacy. While intrusive data collection practices have made it more challenging to protect your digital identity, it’s still possible to maintain a good level of privacy online. Utilizing privacy-conscious tools, avoiding overly intrusive software and being mindful of how you communicate online can go a long way toward keeping your private life just that – private. 

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Writer. A picture is worth a thousand words but unfortunately I can't draw. The world of IT security has always fascinated me and I love playing a small role in helping the good guys combat malware.

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