While privacy and security are often used synonymously, and each can impact your cyber safety, privacy is related to controlling your personal information and how it is used. While there is a balance between privacy and usability, the amount of personal data that is sold and stored is disconcerting. What can you do to increase your privacy while still enjoying the benefits of online activities?
Did You Read the TOS?
Actions Have Consequences
Sometimes in the conversation about personal privacy people have retorted “I have nothing to hide”. However, this is simply not true. The use and misuse of people’s online activity and information can have far reaching consequences. On a personal level you could suffer data breach, identify theft, become a stalking victim, be profiled for higher insurance rates, be refused for a loan or the data could be used against you by the police or prosecution. At a societal level, human rights and civil liberties could be threatened. People are manipulated and fed misinformation. When artificial intelligence is applied to aggregated data bias is often introduced with negative consequences. We all need to protect our privacy and guard it. While there are numerous privacy laws, they are often more reactive than proactive. It is incumbent on the individual to guard your privacy. But how do we do this without just going totally off grid?
Most of the major browsers (Firefox, Safari, Edge, Chrome) are taking steps to help block trackers, but not too much since they exist to serve up websites and ads so it would be counter to their bottom line to completely block them. Because of new data privacy laws, you will often see at the bottom of a website a click through agreement to accept cookies or choose to not use the site. Here are some things you can do to protect your browsing habits:
- Use a third-party ad cookie blocker extension like Ghostery (opt out of Ghost Rank) or Privacy Badger and use an ad blocker like AdBlock Plus or uBlock Origin. Duke University has some other suggestions, including using incognito/private browsing in different browsers.
- Use a secure browser like Brave, Tor, Vivaldi, or on your smartphone try DuckDuckGo.
- Dump your cache and cookies when you exit your browser.
- Delete your browsing history and search history.
- Don’t save your passwords in your browser.
- Block “Show notifications” pop-ups in your browser.
- Stay logged out of your browser.
- If you are a Chrome user, consider a Privacy Checkup (and a grain of salt).
- Use Mine to track your digital footprint.
- Do not use one account to log into another. When you sign up for a new service it will often offer to let you associate your Google or Facebook account for single sign on. Do not do this, but instead create a new username and password.
Free web-based email applications may make you the product. Serving up ads, based on bots “reading” your email, plus spam, tracking cookies and more are all issues. Here are a few things you can do to thwart the privacy erosion:
- Get a secure email platform – ProtonMail, Preveil Tutanota ,and StartMail are encrypted.
- Use disposable email address or Gmail temporary email alias when shopping online or signing up for services.
- Learn to identify and avoid phishing and spam.
- Check your spam filter for suspicious activity.
If you have ever done a web search for your name or cell phone number, the results may shock and dismay you. With little effort you can unearth “public” information including the names of your relatives, your last 7 addresses, property ownership and more. Many of the sites that have this information beckon to offer more for a small fee. With $5 and a social security number anyone can get more than enough information to perpetrate identity theft. So, what can you do?
- Remove yourself from public record aggregators. You can take the time to do this one by one (and more here) or pay to have it done for you by RPI or Reputation Defender.
- Freeze your credit report with TransUnion, Equifax, and Experian.
- When filling out a form you may be asked for your social security number, age, gender, or other private information. You don’t always need to provide it.
- Request Google remove pictures of your home or office from Google Maps.
Thanks to movies like The Social Dilemma and The Great Hack, most people are very aware that personal use of social media is a huge privacy concern. Other than getting off the platform (“private” platforms like Parler and Snapchat are not private either) here are a few ways to be smart about using the platforms:
- Check all your privacy settings in Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Instagram (more tips here).
- Do not accept friend or follow requests from complete strangers.
- Make use of blocking features and report suspicious behavior.
- Do not share personal information, like the names of your children (pictures of them), pictures of your house or house number, and pictures of your vacation until you have returned home. The problem is that many people document their personal lives to their “friends”, but once it goes online it is no longer yours – and it is forever.
- Go through the photos you have posted – or been tagged in- in your social media platforms and delete them if you think they may endanger the privacy of you or your family.
Internet of Things
Voice activated assistants, always on cameras, refrigerators that report that you are running low on groceries, and other “smart” devices are all invading and potentially eroding your privacy. To read about how to control, delete or disable all the devices that are listening read the blog post from CPM “Somebody’s Watching Me”.
Smart Phone Apps
Apps on your smartphone and your laptop may be sharing more than you want to about your conversations, location, contacts, camera, files and almost anything else. How? Well, often when you install apps, a screen notifies you that the app needs permission to access certain functions/files on your device to work. In many cases that is true — but they may not tell you that additionally those apps are sharing information with third parties. You should do at least an annual check of the apps you are using and the permissions you have given them. You may decide to uninstall them or may be able to disable certain permissions unless you need them.
- This Wired article has a great step-by-step guide for iPhone, Android, Windows and MacOS to check permissions and disable them.
- Lifehacker also has a step-by-step guide on shutting down location tracking (and the implications).
- Turn off NFC (Near Field Communication), GPS, and Bluetooth unless you are actively using them. This also helps with battery life!
While privacy and security are not the same, they are intertwined. Make sure to follow all best practices for keeping your information secure. Want more tips? Read this recent PC Magazine article. Even if you do not follow all the steps above, pick a few that make sense to you and start to recall some of your privacy.