For most of us, using the Internet is an inescapable part of our daily lives. We work online, shop online, connect with friends and family, check our bank statement, find out who won the game last night all online…and the list goes on and on. But for all the convenience and positive effects, the Internet has had on our lives, it has also eroded our privacy and opened us up to security risks. Every time we visit a website or open an application, our data is being collected, stored, and analyzed, often in an insecure way.
While there are myriad issues with the pervasive way our data is collected, we will look at 3 of the major issues within the realm of internet privacy: the tracking of individuals, the regularly occurring hacks and data breaches, and the trading of our data between companies and organizations. We will also look at just a few simple ways you can better protect your internet privacy starting today.
Different trackers allow companies to collect and store data about you. When you visit a website, this can look like an agreement to allow cookies. When you download an application on your phone, this is your agreement to allow the app to access your photos, contacts, and the like. While this is ostensibly for advertising purposes, so companies can better individually market products or services to you the consumer, personal data can also be used for more nefarious purposes.
No company is immune to attack or breach, which means that the personal data they gather about you is constantly at risk. Because companies can gather a full profile of each consumer, companies often know a lot of personal details, from where you live to where you work.
As we touched on in the last section, the ubiquity of consumer tracking and the ways data is stored opens up companies and organizations, as well as us as individuals, up to potential hacking. According to a 2017 survey, 73% of U.S. adults are concerned with online hackers gaining access to their personal banking information. Data breaches are becoming all the more common, affecting companies large and small. These hacks can expose the personal data of millions of individuals. While it’s impossible to prevent a hack, there are steps you as an individual can take to keep your personal data more secure.
When companies gather your personal information from the internet, they aren’t just using it for their own personal benefit. Data brokers, or online data aggregators, are companies that gather and store your personal data and also sell it to other companies and organizations. Because many of these organizations remain shrouded in secrecy, it’s incredibly difficult to know which organizations have your data and how much they know about you. However, it is safe to say that if you’re using the internet, your data has been exposed to these types of companies.
Protecting Your Internet Privacy
Every second we’re online, our personal information is exposed and collected and our personal privacy is at risk. For most of us, swearing off the internet completely and retreating into anonymity is not an option. While it’s impossible to completely mitigate the risks of data collection, there are some easy ways to protect your online privacy.
1- Audit your online presence. Using a website like Nuwber, monitor what personal information is available about you online. You may be surprised at how many personal details can be collected through social media sites and other online profiles you have.
2- Adjust your privacy settings on your social media profiles. Using social media means you are voluntarily giving out your personal information to the world. You can, however, limit who sees it. Take advantage of advanced privacy settings, like setting your profile to “private” or making your personal information available only to friends.
3- Stop using public WiFi. Using public networks might seem convenient, but opens you up to major privacy risks as anyone on the network can see what you’re doing on the internet while you’re using it. Avoid it altogether if you can. If you can’t, invest in a virtual private network (VPN) so you can use public networks undetected.
4- Turn off location tracking. Many applications, and even search engines, use location tracking when it’s not really necessary. We also often voluntarily post our location on social media. Turn off these services or use only when necessary to avoid creating an extremely accurate picture of your movements and whereabouts.
5- Keep your main email address and phone number private. A lot of personal information can be gleaned from just your phone number and email. Create a burner email address for online shopping and miscellaneous website sign-ups and consider getting a second SIM card for online shopping.
When it comes to internet privacy, you are the first and best line of defense when it comes to protecting your personal information. While certain countries and states are moving to enhance online privacy protections, don’t hold your breath. New regulations will take time to implement, and there will always be the risk of data breach or hacking. Actively protecting yourself and your personal information is the best way to ensure internet privacy on a personal level.