Protect your privacy online

Online privacy

While everyone knows about the importance of online security, online privacy is rarely treated with quite the same level of urgency.

It's probably that strange old "if you've got nothing to hide, you've got nothing to fear" mindset, coupled with the fact that most of us are happy to trade a little personal info in return for some cool, free stuff. Who among us is willing to give up on YouTube or Google Maps?

But there's complacency in this thinking. Your personal data is incredibly valuable. Ad companies want to use it to sell you things, politicians can use it to manipulate the way you vote, and if the services that harvest it ever get breached you can be left vulnerable to scams or identity theft.

Assuming you don't want to just shut down your Facebook, Google, Amazon and Microsoft accounts, what can you do to protect your privacy? Here's a few simple changes you can make today.

Review your search and social accounts' settings

Chances are, when you first set up your Google, Facebook and other accounts you took a quick glance over the privacy settings and then never thought about it again. These companies harvest massive amounts of data on you, but with growing concerns about what they collect and how they use it, they've all introduced new privacy controls. It's time for another look.

  • Google (including YouTube). By default Google stores all of your activity forever. But if you delve into the Data & Personalisation section of your account you can set it to automatically delete any data from apps and searches, location history, and YouTube activity that's more than three months old. This lets you keep Google's clever personalised results, but doesn't let them keep a record on your going back a decade a more.
  • Facebook. It's much harder to lock down Facebook as they track you online even if you don't have an account. However, the new Off-Facebook Activity feature gives you a little control. It lets you see which companies have been tracking you and sending data to Facebook, and lets you "disconnect" it from your account - the data doesn't get deleted, but does get anonymised. You just have to remember to do it manually.
  • Twitter. In Twitter, you should turn off the Personalization and Data feature, which allows the service to infer information about who you are based on your activity and then share it all with advertisers.

The same kinds of settings will be required for your other social sites and services, you can always search the web for the service's name and 'privacy controls' to get an up to date step by step guide for whichever site or app you're using.

Whatever services you use, it's worth taking a few minutes to review your account to make sure you aren't giving away too much information.

Consider an alternative search provider

Google isn't your only choice for searches. There are other search providers, like DuckDuckGo, Qwant or StartPage, that have a strong focus on your privacy, promising searches with no tracking or ad targeting.

Of course you'll have to balance the privacy benefits of not being tracked at all over the possible loss of quality in search results as it won't have any idea of who you are, where you are or what your interests are - all cues that Google uses to improve the quality and relevance of searches.

Our advice is to try one of the many privacy focused search engines available, and see if you feel you're getting less useful results. If you're still happy with the search experience then set your choice as your browser's new default search provider.

Don't overshare information

If you're a keen social media user it can be easy to get sucked into sharing too much information without even realising. A lot of the stuff you post, including pictures, may seem pretty harmless, but it builds up to quite the profile over time, and tends to stay online for many years. Something you're happy to share today may be something you'll regret in the future.

And it's not just about you - make sure you don't post things your kids don't want the world to see either. (For more on how to protect your children online, see our guide on how to set up parental controls.)

It can also be a security issue. Things like your birthday, schools you attended, pets names and so on are commonly used as security questions by banks. You don't really want to be putting all this info out there publicly for anyone to see.

Lock down your browser

It's hard to avoid being tracked as you travel round the web, but there are a few simple steps you can take to limit the extent to which companies can follow you.

One of the main ways companies track you is by using cookies. These are small text files stored on your computer or phone that are used to identify you. Most web browsers, including Chrome and Microsoft Edge, let you block cookies from third parties, making it harder for random ad companies to follow you from site to site.

Also, use the private browsing mode whenever you don't want to be tracked. This doesn't hide your online activity, but it does let you browse somewhat anonymously - you won't get logged in to sites, and cookies will be disabled.

For the best protection try a browser plugin like Privacy Badger or DuckDuckGo's Chrome privacy plugin. These automatically block a lot of the known tracking services, and learn as they go. These can be fantastic tools for letting you browse in peace.

Or use a different browser altogether

Around two-thirds of all internet users use Google Chrome as their browser on a desktop or laptop, and it's also the default on most Android smartphones. It gives Google access to a massive amount of data on your activities, and is also pretty limited in its all-round privacy options.

If you want to try and cut down on how much companies know about you, an easy solution is to change to a different browser. Either Firefox or Brave would be a great choice, although there are many more options. Both come with a huge range of privacy controls baked in, and block over 2000 separate trackers, including Facebook. They also work on your Android or iOS phone.

Beware apps that hoover up your data

Smartphone apps can rank among the biggest invaders of our privacy. They often grab as much personal data as they can - your age, your location, your phone number, what other apps you use, and a whole lot more - without you knowing, and without it being obvious why they need it. Some companies might then share this data with Facebook, even if you aren't logged in to your account, and others might even sell it.

Always check the permissions an app asks for before you install it, and decide whether the permission is appropriate. Why does that wallpaper app need to know your location, and does that game really need to access your camera? Leaky apps are a bigger problem on Android phones, but don't assume you're off the hook if you're an iPhone user. Research suggests nearly 40% of iOS apps make sketchy permissions requests.

Use a VPN and other security tools

There's more you can do to safeguard your privacy. Make sure the websites you visit are secure: the address should begin with https and your browser should display a little padlock symbol in the address bar. You can use a VPN to encrypt and anonymise your connection to the internet so that your broadband provider isn't able to log meta data from your online activities. Also, use secure messaging apps like Telegram or WhatsApp for your private chats, although do bear in mind that WhatsApp - along with Instagram - are owned by Facebook.

Ultimately, managing your privacy does involve a bit of compromise. It's impossible to go fully off the radar without completely changing the way you use the internet. But these few tweaks can certainly help, and they'll also make you more aware of exactly what you're putting online, who's going to see it, and how they're going to use it.

Posted by Andy Betts on 2020-03-02 13:39 in Features

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