The issue of online privacy has never been more urgent. Over the last year we’ve seen a combination of governments, advertisers, and the entertainment industry, all trying to increase their power to monitor what you do in cyberspace.
Whether it’s trying to force radical and unpopular legislation through the courts, spying on what you browse and buy online, or encouraging fellow citizens to monitor your online behaviour, it’s clear that there is now a concerted effort to undermine the principal of online anonymity, which most of us believe should be upheld.
So with all that doom and gloom in mind, what are the most effective measures you can take to protect your privacy while on the web? Our round-up below is by no means exhaustive, but it should get you on the right track.
Top five ways to protect online privacy
Invest in an VPN
Ok, obviously we have a vested interest in pushing for the use of Virtual Private Networks (VPNs), but if you want to make sure your IP address won’t be tracked, then a VPN is your best bet. Using a VPN basically means that your internet traffic is re-routed via servers located in different countries, making it almost impossible for your real world location to be identified. However, using a VPN won’t protect you from stuff like ad-tracking, because this isn’t tied to your IP address, it’s tied primarily to the cookies that get installed in your browser (we’ll address this later). But it does mean that nothing can be traced back to your real-world identity. For more about how VPNs work, check out our FAQ section.
TOR is, essentially, a free-to-use VPN service (see above) that protects your IP address. It is used by many people around the world, usually those who suffer under oppressive regimes that seek to heavily control the web, but also people in western democracies. TOR is generally a good way to protect yourself online, but it has a couple of downsides compared to a paid VPN service, such as IVPN. The main problem is that TOR allows anyone to set-up ‘entry’ and ‘exit’ nodes, through which your data travels. Most of the time the people setting up the nodes have good intentions, but if you don’t know who these people are then how can you trust them not to spy on your traffic? The other problem with TOR is that it generally offers slower speeds than a privately run VPN.
When it comes to protecting your online identity (and not necessarily your real world identity), it pays to be smart when signing-up to online services. Don’t rely on a single email account to sign-up to forums, shopping sites, social networks etc. Create multiple accounts to fragment your online identity. Also, it may be obvious, but avoid giving away too much personal information while signing up to services (such as real address, phone number etc). Thirdly, remember Google keeps a log of everything you search for and tailors your search results to those requirements. If you’re not comfortable with this then don’t search Google while logged into a Google account, use different browsers, clear cookies (see below), or just use a different search engine entirely such as DuckDuckGo, which doesn’t track you.
It’s difficult to entirely avoid being tracked by online ad companies. Many of these companies have no real interest in knowing who you are, they just want to target ads according to your browsing habits. But nonetheless, it pays to be vigilant, as you have no idea who these ad companies are and how protected your data is. You can run add-ons on Firefox such as Ghostery, NoScript, BetterPrivacy and CookieMonster, to help avoid tracking. You can also regularly delete your cookies and browsing history manually, or with a program such as ComboFix. If you ever get infiltrated by very resilient spyware or adware then you can always pop over to the TechSupport adware forums and ask for help removing it.
Smart social network usage
Obviously the best way to avoid revealing too much information on social networks is to cease using them altogether. But nowadays it’s hard to avoid using Facebook and LinkedIn if you want to stay in touch with friends and colleagues. Remember to check Facebook’s privacy settings and ensure that you only share information with friends. Don’t hand over your birthday, or any other personal information. Consider changing your name to a pseudonym. Register as a resident of a different country. Don’t post any pictures of yourself. Don’t install any ‘apps’. Also avoid ‘Liking’ any pages or posts (the ‘Like’ button is one of the biggest tracking elements that Facebook uses to target ads and get information) and avoid discussing personal information with others.