15 Ways to protect your privacy online
Online privacy and security are issues that have been becoming increasingly more relevant in our society especially in the present times as we stand on the verge of entering Web 3. The smart web along with the constant implementation of new and innovative hardware devices, which we begin to utilize and interact with on a daily basis are making it progressively harder to protect ourselves. Not to mention the fact that some users are even not taking any measures to secure themselves and their sensitive data online as illustrated by figure 1.
Figure 1: Percentage of users, who do not do anything to preserve their privacy
Furthermore, our data is also up for grabs as companies are continuously competing in order to obtain our beloved interests, opinions and preferences in relation to their products and those of their competitors. While harmless at a first glance, giving away our information for free can prove to be quite detrimental in regards to the future. Privacy intrusion has become a substantial and ever present problem in our current society. However, there are a number of privacy-conservation methods that you can implement into your daily lifestyle and routine in order to minimize the number of instances, in which your privacy and identity can be severely exposed or even worse - stolen. Here are 15 examples of such precaution methods including some technologies, principles and advice that you should at least consider implementing in order to prevent your privacy from being exposed and also to help diminish the overall consequences that a potential breach of your personal data can have at a certain point down the line.
1. Utilize a Virtual Private Network
One of the easiest and most commonly utilizes privacy-protection techniques that you can take advantage of is to make use of a VPN - virtual private network. A VPN is a special software that routes your online traffic through a given server located in another part of the world by using a secure encrypted tunnel. This allows you to not only hide information such as your browsing history, traffic and IP address, but also helps preserve your identity by keeping you anonymous at all times. This is particularly useful for when you are connected to a public WiFi or an untrusted network as it can protect your privacy from hackers and snoopers, who are waiting to steal your sensitive data.
Additionally, by using a VPN you are capable of changing your IP address in order to make yourself appear as if you were located in, and browsing the Web from, another country. This enables you to bypass strictly-imposed censorship, while also granting you complete access to geo-restricted content such as streamed media.
But while handy, these additional useful properties pale in comparison to the main principle behind having an active VPN connection each time you visit a given web page. Remember that the primary intention of a VPN is to protect your privacy and preserve your anonymity, even though a large majority of the people utilize it primarily for entertainment purposes as evident in figure 2.
Figure 2: Why do people use a VPN
There are a wide variety of online providers that offer VPN services. However, you need to be careful when making the final choice. Due to the overall expanding VPN market and its continuous growth, which can be observed in figure 3, many new providers have entered the field.
Figure 3: VPN market size
Over the last couple of years there have been a number of cases, in which providers that have explicitly stated they would never log user activity have gone ahead and done exactly that - collected their customers’ information and later on sold it to different third-parties. Because of this, make sure to conduct your research thoroughly prior to choosing. As a side note, if you wish to be in complete control over your VPN, you can try our VPS-installed, dedicated VPN servers. They are completely transparent, use only open-source protocols and you have full SSH access in order to manage the server as you like.
2. Checking for an active SSL certificate
Staying on the theme of information encryption, an easy check that you do in order to ensure that the web page you are currently visiting is secure, is to glance over to the URL address of the page that you are currently viewing and check whether you can see a padlock icon being displayed next to the address bar. This is known as a valid SSL certificate, short for ‘secure sockets layer’. Depending on the browser that you are using, the field can also be coloured in green, however, do not count on this as it is not a widely implemented feature in practice as each browser is designed differently. Regardless, this padlock icon signals that the page you are on is secure and any data you input will be encrypted, meaning that potential hackers and eavesdroppers will not be able to decipher it on the spot and take away your valuable personal information.
3. Accept only essential and required cookies
We have all opened a certain website for the first time only to be presented with a screen overlay saying that you need to accept the provided cookies if you want to gain access to the content of the page or use the particular application.
While all browsers offer you the option to either automatically delete your cookies completely upon closing your session or manually clearing them with the click of a few buttons, users tend to neglect such settings and privacy-protecting alternatives. Thi can potentially cause problems under certain circumstances if a seamlessly harmless cookie falls into the wrong hands.
In order to avoid this, the next time you are asked whether you would like to accept cookies by a given website, try looking for a button that states ‘accept only essential cookies’. Also, try searching more meticulously as sometimes that specific button can blend in with the background or be placed at an unorthodox location on the page, with the text also being barely legible due to the incredibly small font size.
However, if you are unable to locate the option on the page, then attempt to locate a button which will allow you to manually assign which cookies you want to permit. Once the cookie selection menu opens up go ahead and deselect as many of them as you possibly can. The less information collected about you, your device, connection and location - the better your privacy will be protected.
4. Use a privacy-oriented browser and search engine
We are currently still living alongside the second iteration of the Internet - Web 2, which is also known as the Web of targeted advertising. Each website you visit keeps track of your data, builds up a sample user profile and notes down data such as your perceived age, physical location, predicted interests and even marital status and education based on your performed actions and previous website history. This information is then used to suggest personalized content to you, which you can find interesting and would be willing to engage, based on your fictional user profile and interests. This results in the creation of the so-called ‘filter bubbles’, which is why two individuals, located at different points in the world can see divergent search results and suggestions.
While such personalization can be useful as it can aid in finding content that would be more likely to resonate with you, the algorithms and actions that run behind the scenes can potentially interfere with your privacy. As we already touched upon in the previous section, having a web browser that can mitigate most of this data collection, instead of you having to do it manually, can be quite useful. As a matter of fact, combining a browser that can block advertisements and reject most unnecessary cookies automatically can save you a lot of the hassle when it comes to protecting your privacy. Furthermore, you can also use such a browser with a search engine that also focuses on protecting your data and privacy so that you can achieve the best overall results. Our suggestion would be to combine Brave and DuckDuckGo for maximum privacy protection.
5. Check link destination prior to click on it
Malicious content is everywhere on the Web. There are a plethora of untrusted websites and sources all claiming different things. Links in particular can be a very sneaky way to inject malware or spyware onto your browser or device if you are not careful.
Rather than only checking the anchor tag (the text, to which the link is attached) of a certain hyperlink on the Web, make sure to also have a look at the final destination to which you are going to be redirected. Most browsers will display the URL to which you will go to when you hover over the given hyperlink. This information is usually displayed in the bottom left or right side of the browser window. If the destination does not appear then you can also try using F12 to bring up the developer tools console and you can manually try to find the link. Alternatively, you can use the Ctrl+Shift+C key combination to select and locate the link element directly inside of the console.
Also, most secure links will generally implement anchor tag attributes such as ‘rel=noopener’ and ‘rel=noreferrer’. However, do not rely entirely on this as a link can still be malicious even if it implements both attributes.
6. Avoid using data collecting hardware
There are many divergent technological devices that we utilize in our everyday lives and most of them are constantly evolving to become even smarter, allowing you to have total control over your household and lifestyle at your fingertips.
While undoubtedly useful, these devices collect data about your body, vitals, travel routes and your home, which are a few examples amongst the tons of other areas and sections of your life that they have unrestricted access to. Smart and fitness watches, home controllers, smart gadgets such as your fridge, microwave and coffee maker - they are all collecting data.
But while they might be utilizing and processing that data in order to become more efficient and make your life easier, just one small mistake can result in your data being compromised, leaving your sensitive and private information vulnerable, exploitable and unprotected. Because of this, try to avoid using such hardware, but if you cannot, then at least try to disable any data-collecting options that they might come with.
7. Turn off data collection, tracking & monitoring for your applications
Speaking of having hardware and devices collecting your data, there are some applications that we cannot live without or want to use but are afraid to do so because they are capable of collecting our information and breaching our privacy such as location and progress monitoring apps along with the conventional online communication services that we all want to have at our disposal at any given time.
There have been multiple instances worldwide of users’ data being collected unwillingly or unknowingly only to later on be sold to advertisers and other companies that are interested in obtaining such information in order to improve their products and services, which is something we mentioned in the opening sections of this article.
If you do not want to have to deprive yourself of your favorite application or device, then you can go into its settings and look for an option that specifically lists privacy. From there, turn off all options that request access to your device, location or general information.
8. Avoid connecting to public WiFi networks
We have all been at a bus/train station or at an airport, waiting for our mode of transport to arrive. While you could take out your phone and start watching some videos or scrolling through social media using your mobile data, such interactions can ultimately have a very expensive strain on your budget and mobile plan. This is why most people opt to use the readily and freely available public WiFi network at certain locations that are quite visited by a large section of the public.
This is why such networks are also the primary target for most hackers, eavesdroppers and snoopers. Hacking and taking over a given user’s device through a public WiFi network is like a walk in the park for such individuals. They can easily gain control over your browsing session and steal valuable information like your credit card details or your login credentials (especially if you store them in your browser).
Because of this, we strongly advise you to never use public WiFi networks unless completely necessary. If you need to use the free Internet, make sure you either connect through a VPN or try to not disclose any potentially personal, sensitive or exploitable information while you are browsing the Web such as the aforementioned login or card credentials.
9. Use a trusted password manager
Seeing as how we touched upon passwords in the previous sections, it is absolutely important to remember to never store your password or login credentials in general inside of your browser. If you have strong and secure passcodes that are created automatically by using a password generator (which we strongly recommend you to do as simple passwords are easily crackable) and you are not capable of remembering each separate one, then you should definitely look into getting a reliable password manager, with the emphasis being put on ‘reliable’.
Some password managers can offer you extremely high security including the implementation of a master password in addition to utilizing a two-factor authentication system in order ensure that your passwords are safely stored. Others, however, are easily exploitable and capable of being hacked. There have also been some cases recently, where password managers have been breached and user passwords stolen. To avoid becoming a vulnerable target, ensure that you have carried out an exhaustive research prior to making a final choice for a given manager. Our recommendation would be to look into both Dashlane and Bitwarden.
Some would say that having a secure password manager does not have a direct impact on your privacy. However, the less information that can be extracted about you, the better, meaning that if your accounts are securely stored and practically impossible to be hacked, your privacy will ultimately benefit respectively from it too.
10. Do not download files or applications from an untrusted source
Even though this is a rule that has been established since the inception of the Internet, most people either forget it or purposefully refuse to follow it. You should never download applications, files, images or any software in general from an untrusted place. Should you need to download something onto your device, go to the initial source and get it from there. Usually links that claim to be a free download link for anything related to software, media or applications are nothing more than a scam.
Moreover, if you are worried whether a particular button will take you to the correct download page, you can try using the trick that we previously covered - checking the link destination before clicking it. A simple button might act as a gateway for a hacker to take control over your device or browsing sessions and steal your information.
11. Do not install untrusted software
Remaining on the topic of malicious programs and applications, be careful when installing any type of software that you have obtained from a place different from the originally intended primary source. Even though you should not download files from random websites on the Web, you might not be capable of resisting the urge in the long run. If you do end up getting an installation file (or an .exe file) from the Web, you should avoid installing it as it might contain malicious software that can be injected into your machine once you run it.
Also, if you still persist and do still proceed to install the given software or application be mindful that spyware, crypto-miners and other malicious software can be seamlessly uploaded onto your device without you noticing.
Because of this, it is recommended that you check the processes in your control panel as well as your system’s resource consumption regularly to see whether you will notice any fluctuations or anomalies. One more prominent example can be to check whether your system is using an abnormally high amount of resources in spite of the fact that you are not running anything on your machine. This can be an indication that your machine might be infected and you will need to seek help as your privacy and personal information might be at a risk of being compromised.
12. Use an encrypted email client
Email messages have been used for spam since their creation. While some people have completely forgotten about this type of communication, it is still one of the most used messaging systems worldwide. Because of this popularity, phishing, smishing and cat-fishing alongside other scam tactics have plagued users for over 2 decades.
You have most probably been warned numerous times not to open emails in the spam folder, not to click on any links inside of the email or not to open or download any attachments. However, a surprising amount of users still succumb to these actions and pay the price in the form of severe consequences at the expense of their privacy and information.
On the other hand, there have been quite the substantial number of cases where users’ emails have been brute-forcefully hacked with their information being viewed, extracted or even sold to advertisers or third parties. In some rare cases, celebrities have even been exposed on the Internet. Such privacy and security breaches can easily be avoided if you decide to utilize such a client.
A good encrypted email software has multiple security layers to ensure that your account is protected at all times, implements two-factor authentication and supports a wide range of encryption methods and techniques that will make sure that your messages are safely encoded. This guarantees that even if someone were to somehow hack your account, your messages will remain private and they will also be unable to be viewed or exposed, resulting in your privacy being preserved. Additionally, such a software can automatically detect spammy or scammy content as it can identify potentially harmful sender IP addresses and notify you in time before you proceed to opening, answering or replying to such emails. Our recommendation is to use an email client like Thunderbird.
13. Utilize an encrypted texting application
Again, to further expand on the subject of texting, there have been countless examples over the last number of years of people’s private messages being exposed to the general public. While it has been mostly the celebrity figures that have been primarily targeted, this does not rule out everyday people from being susceptible to such privacy beaches as well.
Carrying on the discussion from the aforementioned encrypted email client, you can also make use of an encrypted messaging application as well. Such software encodes all of your messages, chats and contacts, meaning that even if your device or account does get stolen, your information and privacy will be kept safe, due to the fact that they can only be decoded using a special decryption key.
Additionally, such software does not only periodically delete previous messages, but also provides you with the option of conducting a completely anonymous discussion with someone that will not be recorded or saved on your device, in the cloud or anywhere inside of your user profile or account. One such example software that you can definitely look into is Signal.
14. Pay using cryptocurrencies
What you can also start doing to further protect your privacy is to begin to pay for your goods and services using cryptocurrencies. Bitcoin for example has been around for more than a decade and is accessible to everyone, making it a good, stable starting initial alternative payment method. Additionally, you can make transactions through the Lightning Network. If you are more educated on the topic or like investing and trading in general, you will probably also be acquainted with some other cryptocurrencies that are also accepted as a viable transaction method worldwide.
Should you not be that interested in crypto, here is what you should know. Cryptocurrencies are decentralized and implement the innovative blockchain technology allowing you to make anonymous payments and transactions, ultimately protecting your privacy. Not only are international payments cheaper, but cryptocurrencies also provide faster and more reliable transactions. However, while difficult, it is important to mention that payments can still be tracked. Ultimately, this should not dissuade you from using them, as your privacy should be much more secure and protected when conducting payment using cryptocurrencies.
15. Avoid sharing personal information on social media
Finally, it is time to address the elephant in the room - social media. Social media platforms are the first place that people with hackers, stalkers and people with malicious intents will always visit if they want to obtain any kind of information. Such platforms are also the main source of data for advertisers, who are capable of using techniques such as web scraping and user profile modeling to extract your information and create sample user personas based on it. Because of this, social media platforms present one of the greatest issues in relation to privacy protection. While you might be completely oblivious to these processes happening behind the scenes of your favorite social media platform, the reality is that your privacy is constantly at risk.
Additionally, you might think that something as simple as sharing some photos, posting a status containing your location or liking someone else’s comment cannot harm your privacy, but the truth is that you are exposing yourself more than you can even imagine. By performing such actions that represent your engagement, you are essentially revealing data about your interests, social connections such as friends and family (even your pets), hobbies, favorite places, food, appearance, clothing preferences, travel patterns and even your daily routine. These all represent different categories, which can then be passed or sold on to third parties. As it can be seen in figure 4, a large number of social media platforms do actually share such categories.
Figure 4: Social media data categories shared with third parties
This is not to say that social media is bad and that you should not be using it. What we are implying here is that you should severely limit sharing any personal or potentially exploitable data on social media and be weary and extremely cautious of the data that you do share online in order to keep your privacy safe as much as possible.
Final thoughts on privacy
Protecting your privacy is absolutely essential in today’s society. Although many users worldwide have started to implement some form of privacy protection globally, it is still surprising that around 16% have not done anything to protect themselves and their data as depicted in figure 5.
Figure 5: Privacy protection methods worldwide
Our 15 examples were just a handful of suggestions that you can employ to secure and secure your privacy and there are many more techniques out there that you can try and implement. Regardless, do at the very least try to take some actions and begin to protect yourself, your data and your personal information.
Figure 1 - Statista, 2018, ‘Share of internet users who have not taken steps to protect their online privacy as of October 2018, by country’, online, available at Statista.
Figure 2 - Statista, 2018, ‘Entertainment Is the Main Motivator for VPN Use’, online, available at the following page.
Figure 3 - Statista, March 2022, ‘Size of the virtual private network (VPN) market worldwide from 2019 to 2027’, online, available at this graphic.
Figure 4 - Statista, 2021, ‘Percentage of personal data categories shared with third parties by selected iOS apps’, online, available at the Statista website.
Figure 5 - Statista, March 2020, ‘Steps taken by global internet users to protect online activities and personal information as of December 2019’, online, available at the following data graphic.