Suppose you want privacy online but you don’t want to give up on all the benefits of 21st century life: from browsing the web to using Facebook to checking your email. Is that possible in this day of data mining, facial recognition software, and giant databases of un-volunteered personal information? Yes. You can have an online presence and protect it too. But you need the know-how, and that’s what the Steps to Privacy series is all about.
By the end of this guide, we hope that you’ll finally have peace of mind about what information is available about you on the Internet.
1. Stop Being Tracked Everywhere You Go On The Web
Nearly every website in the world is using a third-party service to track you with uniquely identifying cookies and web bugs, and even “Like” buttons. If you’re not blocking these trackers, your online behavior is being funneled from every website you go to to a few big analytics companies, the most common of which is Google.
The best way to block these trackers is the free Ghostery plugin, which is available for all major browsers. It not only blocks the trackers, but also gives you the option of seeing what it’s blocking as you browse from one site to the next.
If you want to block all types of tracking, not just third-party web bugs, you’ll have to enable your browser’s Private Browsing (or in Google Chrome, Incognito) Mode through the browser settings. Keep in mind that Private Browsing is imperfect.
2. Configure Your Social Media Accounts To Protect Your Privacy
If you’re not concerned about your privacy on social networking services, you’re not paying attention.
- Facebook – Each year, Facebook has made its default privacy settings expose more of your information to the entire world. Data such as your photos, wall posts, gender, and Likes are made fully available to anyone who looks at your profile, friend or not. If you understand how to tweak Facebook privacy settings you can ensure that you use this site in a safe way.
- Twitter – Privacy settings are much more straightforward on Twitter. Under Settings -> Account, you can configure the few but important) privacy settings.
- LinkedIn – LinkedIn’s privacy policies have come into greater focus following the company’s IPO and its recent hacker attack. For now, managing your privacy on LinkedIn is very straightforward, just go to the Privacy Controls section of your Account Settings page.
- MySpace – MySpace has emerged as the first of the social networks to actually sell its user’s data in bulk . Unsurprisingly, their default privacy settings are terrible. On your Privacy Settings page, make sure to set your profile to be visible only to your friends instead of Everyone in the world. Also make sure to disable the sharing of your information with companies and advertisers.
- Google Plus – If you’re on Google Plus, you should take some time to configure the somewhat complex privacy settings and understand how privacy works on this social network. LifeHacker has an indepth guide to privacy on Google+.
3. Privacy-Friendly And Anonymous Services
Most services on the Internet have a profit-oriented attitude towards your personal information. If it’s a good business decision to sell your data, they will tend towards that over time. If giving your information to the government is the path of least resistance, they’ll do that too.
There are, however, a small but significant group of websites out there that make your personal privacy their top priority. If you really care about the privacy of your personal information, you should consider switching from mainstream services to some of these:
- Web Search – Popular search engines like Google and Bing track all of your searches and other on-site behavior, and link it to your uniquely identifying cookies and IP address. Consider using a pro-privacy search engine like DuckDuckGo or ixquick, which go out of their way to avoid tracking you in any way.
- Email – Popular email services like Gmail and Yahoo! Mail also don’t place a premium on user privacy. In addition to personally identifying and tracking you, these services frequently employ third parties to process your emails. Consider using a Remailer or private email service like Hushmail to which keep your email anonymous and encrypted. Even if you’re not ready to switch to one of those services, take some time to review your email client’s security settings.
- Other services and options – There are privacy-friendly alternatives for every major service you can think of, whether it’s hosting a website or making VoIP calls.
4. Remove Your Information From People Search Databases
Chances are that your personal information, employment history, and criminal record are all searchable from dozens of people search databases. You can remove these records for free by going to each site and following their opt out policies. Or, you can use Safe Shepherd, which automates the whole process.
5. Go The Extra Mile With Encryption And Anonymity Tools
Anything you send through the Internet that’s not encrypted can potentially be snooped on by hackers. The good news is that there is usually a secure, encrypted way to conduct any important online task.
Most popular websites have a secure version (look for https:// instead of http://) that will encrypt your communications while you’re on that site. You can ensure that you always use the secure version of a website with the HTTPS Everywhere plugin from the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
For those with a technical bent interested in going the full mile, check out the Tor project. Tor can anonymize and encrypt all your online activity. A free, communal service, it’s used by people trying to maintain private communications in the US and by those protesting dictatorships in China and the Middle East.