Internet privacy is your right to keep your personal data safe, secure, and confidential. You wouldn’t let random people come to your home and browse through your personal files. But there are increasing numbers of groups online doing exactly that to your web activity. No matter the reason, there are plenty of people out there with a monetary interest in breaching your privacy.
Internet privacy also relates to the vast network of programs, safeguards, and companies trying to keep your data safe. Everything from anti-virus software to more exotic concepts like VPNs fall within the realm of “internet privacy”. Just as breaching privacy is common, protecting consumers against such breaches is big business as well.
Commons Privacy Issues to Be Aware Of
Now that we know what internet privacy is, what are some specific challenges to it?
Cookies are bits of information that make webpages load faster and save your personal information online. This could be considered a good thing, but there are downsides as well. Cookies, for instance, can be used by sites that want to track your activities on the web.
Surveillance is another invasion of your internet privacy. Western governments have laws and infrastructure in place that allows them to gather data on civilians. The Investigatory Powers Act in the UK and the Patriot Act in the US allow the government to access private data online.
Naturally, this is used to thwart criminals but the laws allow for the harvesting of anyone’s data, which is invasive.
Photography-based fraud is on the rise because we like to post photos of ourselves online. It’s become increasingly easier for hackers and thieves to use those personal photos for a multitude of criminal purposes. Assume at this point that no photo you place online – even in cloud storage – is “safe” from being used by anyone else.
“Big Data” is the term for all the harvesting done by large businesses like Facebook, Apple, and Google of your data. It is then farmed out to companies, advertisers, and even psychological/medical research.
While it sounds scary – and it is – there are some upsides, like being able to identify a marked change in your pattern of online behavior. This is the type of technology that allows banks and credit card companies to track what might be fraudulent behavior.
Identity theft is the act of a hacker or phisher getting your extremely critical data. Once they have a social security number and a bit of private information to fill in security questions, a hacker can assume your identity online. This allows them to open lines of credit, bank accounts, apply for utilities or apartments, and all with you none-the-wiser.
Risks to Your Internet Privacy and Security
Beyond just what you do (or don’t do) that jeopardizes your information, there is plenty of activity on the criminal side that can breach your privacy, too. Let’s look at some of the most common ones.
Imagine that you go to a common website you’ve visited a hundred times, but for some reason, you keep getting redirected. It might seem like an error or a problem with the targeted website, but it could be a targeted attack. Hackers can set up an attack on the DNS server of a typical, mundane website and redirect the traffic to another one set up to gather your information.
Phishing is a term used to describe tactics designed to steal personal information. The most common forms of phishing usually include official-looking fake emails. What looks like an email from Amazon can actually be designed to steal your login information.
Malware is a variety of software designed to steal information. You can pick up malware accidentally from emails or websites. It runs in the background of your computer without your knowledge, quietly gathering and transmitting sensitive information.
Spyware is a catch-all term for applications that run in the background of your computer the purpose of recording your data. Spyware is a type of malware that’s generally used for marketing. Aspects of your internet usage, like where you go and what you do, are monitored.
Behaviors You Engage in That Affect Your Privacy
There are many behaviors you probably perform online on a daily basis that are putting your privacy at risk. Some of the most common are:
- Using the same password for multiple accounts sets you up for a domino effect if someone steals your information. It may help you remember your logins but this convenience might not be worth the risk. If a hacker compromises one account, they have access to all of them.
- Allowing a search engine to track your searches is giving that company the right to keep your data. You can actually go to Google.com and look at your browsing history for, well, probably all of the internet’s history. It’s pretty creepy and of course, that data is sold (at best) or stolen and used maliciously (at worst).
- Your internet service provider will often have a point in their terms of service that allow them to gather and sell your data as well. This is another reason to read the terms and conditions of every site you give personal information to. If you see something in those terms that doesn’t sit well with you, then find a competing business.
- Allowing websites to keep you logged in is super convenient but not inherently safe. If someone were to hack your computer, they’d have immediate, unblocked access to all your apps and accounts.
- Opening suspicious emails, attachments, or files is a bad practice. There is a thriving community of criminals who attack us in this manner. And they’re getting better by the day at deceiving people to open suspicious, infectious attachments. Now more than ever you need to be overly cautious about the emails you open.
Many programs like this infect your email and then cause it to send out emails to your contacts, endangering their computers as well. So even if an email is from a colleague or friend, make sure that they sent it.
So What’s the Difference Between Privacy and Security?
Though these two terms are often mentioned in tandem, they do actually reflect different concepts. One good thing is that many programs and tools created to protect privacy will protect your security. This helps cut down on the overlapping protection programs you need to buy.
Security has more to do with how your passwords and data are handled and stored by the companies and entities whom with you share them. Internet security would be like how a bank keeps your money in a vault; you’ve already handed your money over, so now it’s on someone else to take care of it.
Big companies use many methods to protect your information, including but not limited to:
- Powerful encryption technology
- Team of IT personnel tasked with privacy and security
- Constantly updating software and applications to protect private data
How privacy differs from security is essentially based on where the data is. If you are in possession of your information on your device, then privacy means keeping that information yours. Security, as mentioned above, has to do with how the places you do want your data handle it and keep it from being manipulated by other people.
How to Secure Your Data and Maintain Privacy on the Internet
The internet is far more complex now than it was even five or ten years ago. Increasingly sophisticated methods are being used to steal your information. Fortunately, security and privacy measures have improved over this time as well.
- Keep your software updated – Outdated software is vulnerable software. On phones and more mobile devices, the app stores will nudge you when you need to update your programs. If you’re using a desktop it might be up to you to keep an eye on when things need updating.
- Get a good anti-virus with a firewall – one of the oldest methods of protecting your computer is still the most fundamental. Anti-virus software protects you from insidious programs, like viruses. A good firewall keeps your network and computer safe from attacks.
- Set your internet options to a higher level of security – at least on a Windows computer, you can go in and adjust your privacy and security settings. You can adjust a host of things, from erasing form data when you close the browser to wiping history and cookies regularly. Use these adjustable levels of security to your advantage.
- Use a secure web browser – there are levels of both security and user-friendliness to consider when choosing a browser. Never use a browser with less security than you need, which is to say don’t pick something that sacrifices security for flashiness or features.
- Delete your cookies regularly – while cookies make pages load faster, they also contain data that can be mined by pages you visit. Deleting them on a regular basis will ensure there’s less information for prying eyes to see.
- Get a VPN – a Virtual Private Network is a term you’ll begin to see more and more in relation to safe web browsing. A VPN allows you to connect to a remote, virtual server which hides your data and activity.
By connecting to a remote server, your IP cannot track what you do online. This includes downloads, gaming, streaming, and searches. This also makes it so other third parties attacking your connection are blocked, too.
- Create highly complex passwords – never use passwords that are easy to guess with minimal effort. A simple password can be picked apart by someone with time, determination, and a cracking program. Make different passwords for every login, and make them incredibly unique.
- Get a 2-factor authentication protocol – many companies make what are basically key fobs that act as another level of security. Now with the commonplace nature of smartphones, you can download a 2-factor authentication app as well.
When you attempt to enter your password, the website or program prompts your 2-factor app or key fob to produce a code. You then have to enter the code into a prompt on the website and only then you can log in to your site or program.
- Get a password manager – if you have a lot of passwords, these programs are essential. A password manager will create complex passwords and then store them in a vault on your computer. They’re highly convenient and exceptionally secure.
- Ensure that the sites you visit are HTTPS – it used to be common that only sites where money was spent needed HTTPS. Now it’s more or less all reputable websites that have this layer of defense. If the site you’re visiting doesn’t have an HTTPS in the address bar, it’s best to find a different site for your needs.
- Use as little social media as possible – there’s never been a single product that makes it so easy for people to steal your information as social media. The less information you put out the better, so keep your circle of “friends” small. Don’t accept invites from random people you don’t know, and don’t ever post private information on public forums.
- Always use ad-blockers (and tracker blockers if you can) – these do block unwanted pop-ups and ads embedded in the background of web pages you visit. While it’s handy to avoid annoying pop-ups, it also adds a layer of protection from things you can’t see, like malware programmed into videos.
Tracker blockers do exactly what you’d expect, deleting or preventing tracking of your movements on the web.
- Use a TOR browser – the Onion browser works by scattering all of your information across a vast network. This makes tracking your personal data almost impossible. You can use TOR alongside a VPN to maximize your protection.
- Never use public wifi if possible – though it’s tempting, public wifi on an unsecured device is open to many forms of attack. This includes inserting hijacking your browser or infecting your machine with malware. Convenient, but not worth it in most cases.
- Try using a “virtual machine” – a program that essentially clones an operating system within a smaller package. A virtual machine allows you to access whatever information you need to access, but on an isolated, virtual system saved onto your device. If the virtual machine gets attacked or infected, it can be quarantined and then cleaned by your anti-virus safely.
- Be wary of home-hub robots – Amazon Echo, Google Home, etc are all amazing little pieces of convenience. They come with a downside though, and that’s that they don’t have the perfect settings to keep them from sharing your information with people who ask.
As these devices become more commonplace, so will the people spending time to try and hack or override them. Until the technology is far more widespread and perfected, they are just a scary Pandora’s box (which it’s surprising there isn’t one already named that).
Who Exactly Are We Protecting Ourselves From?
Unfortunately there is a long list of people who want your data. These behaviors will protect against:
- Cyber-criminals – anyone who is attempting to infiltrate your device to steal your information to use it for their own benefit
- Government groups – even if you’ve got nothing to hide, you don’t need or want the government spying on your activity.
- Advertisers – this is pretty much the most common group that will want your information. While they may have good intentions, there’s no reason to willingly give them your data so they can profit.
- ISPs – your internet service provider is the same way, wanting to take your data about how you use the internet and sell it to other parties. Don’t make it easy for them; you owe them nothing but the cost to supply internet to you.
Internet Privacy FAQs
Internet privacy is more or less dead and the only thing you can do is actively protect yourself; nobody else is going to do it for you (or at least for free).
The most secure countries in terms of data are Greece, Canada, Romania, Hungary, and Argentina, in that order.
The United States, UK, and China are some of the worst in terms of privacy laws.
The UK has always been more likely to monitor their citizens’ internet activity. The UK stands out as a model of a lack of privacy, and mostly in favor of the government.
The United States also has lax privacy laws, due to the fact that large companies lobby Congress to be allowed access to your data. Some states restrict corporate spying, but the USA is still pretty weak when it comes to internet privacy for consumers.
Non-EU countries with strong laws like Canada and Argentina have actually modeled their systems from the EU system. They and the EU are proof that citizens want laws that more strictly regulate internet privacy in favor of the citizen.
Internet privacy is a huge concern and will only increase in complexity and importance. If you neglect it now and don’t even do the bare minimum to protect yourself, the effect of data mining on your life will snowball
Keep Your Information to Yourself!
You don’t have to tell your electric company how you use your electricity, do you? There’s no reason to have to tell your ISP what you do online, either. Don’t make it easy for people to steal and sell your data, to steal your identity, or to hurt your devices.
How Do I Determine If My Machines Have Already Been Hacked?
If you’re concerned that your machine might already be infected, there are some ways to find out. Some basic things you can look out for to indicate that you have an infection on your machine are:
- Check your task manager for any processes are using up tons of resources even when the system should be idle. It’s probable that there are some things going on in the background that aren’t supposed to be. You can search the Internet with the names of suspicious processes and usually find out if they are benign or not.
- Make your sure anti-virus is constantly scanning your machine, ideally once a day. Though this isn’t a fool-proof method of keeping your information safe, it’s still going to catch most of the big things.
- Random pop-ups ads or redirected browsers are a sure sign that your computer has been compromised.
- Pull up your task manager again and look at the programs that are designated to start when the machine starts up. If there’s something there you don’t recognize, check if it’s a known virus. If so, get rid of it or quarantine it with your anti-virus software as soon as possible.
How Do I Safely Browse the Internet Anonymously?
Only part of the solution to internet privacy and security is found in preparing your machine. The rest relies on your browsing activity to be secure and private. Thankfully it’s not difficult to get in the habit of safe browsing through small changes in your behaviors. Some small tweaks that could help you browse more anonymously are:
- Browse with TOR – TOR scrambles your connection through thousands of virtual servers. This makes it virtually impossible to track your TOR-routed activity.
- Use a VPN – similar to TOR, the VPN allows you to surf in a secure way even though you’re remote from a private, secure server
- Delete your cookies – when you close out your browser, delete your cookies; this prevents people who use your computer to access your account at websites without logging in
- Never use public wifi – it’s far too easy for a host of problematic invasions of your privacy to occur; if it’s essential to do so, however, always use a VPN
- Always browse in Incognito mode – it will prevent a lot of your data from being shared, stored, or tracked. It will also prevent the allocation of potentially malicious cookies