8 tips for protecting online privacy and maintaining anonymity

If you are reading this, you are on the Internet. As are hundreds of millions around the globe at this very moment. The Internet has delivered mind-boggling convenience and a treasure-trove of information. It has become such a central aspect of everyday life that most people don’t even realize how much they depend on it. Yet, you cannot view the Internet’s advantages without glancing at the backdrop of grave risks. Perhaps none is greater than the threat to personal privacy and the danger that looms if confidential data makes its way into the hands of criminal elements. Online privacy is a hot-button issue that has led to the proliferation of privacy laws such as the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). Yet, while privacy laws disincentivize the misuse of private data, they do little to repair the damage after a breach occurred. In protecting online privacy and maintaining your anonymity, the actions you take are far more important than any legal framework that could be put in place. Here are some practical tips to ensure your personal data remains safe from the businesses, governments, and criminals that would want to access it without your express authorization.

1. Avoid oversharing (especially on social media)

You wouldn’t start blurting out your most intimate secrets in front of a crowd of strangers. Yet, a surprising number of people fail to exercise similar restraint on the worldwide web. The online audience is far larger than any crowd that could be assembled.

Social media is an especially notorious conduit for unnecessarily divulging personal information. Whether it’s keeping friends up to speed with our life milestones or it’s just the vanity posting on Instagram capturing your most spectacular moments, the more information you share online, the greater the risk that your personal information could be abused.

In protecting online privacy, start by disregarding the ‘about me’ sections of your social networking accounts. It’s not necessary for the world to know your date of birth, physical address, phone number, email address, alma mater, or workplace. After all, the people who need to know this information about you, already have it via your offline interactions. You could go further and restrict who can view your posts.

2. Create a powerful password

All the effort you put toward keeping your personal information off the Internet or safe from unauthorized access would come to naught if your online accounts aren’t protected by a strong password. One of the first things someone intent on hacking your account will do is attempt to guess your password or break it via a brute force attack. So, the stronger your password, the harder it will be for an attacker to crack it.

Apply the basic principles of password management. That means ensuring the password is at least 12 characters long and contains lower- and upper-case letters, special characters, and numbers. Under no circumstances should your password have personal information such as your birth date, physical address, high school name, college name, or mother’s maiden name.

You can create an additional level of password security by implementing two-factor authentication. That would mean, for instance, receiving a one-off code via SMS that you’ll need to key in to gain access once you’ve input your user ID and password.

3. Turn on private or incognito browsing mode

Browsing in private or incognito mode is the butt of jokes thanks to the assumption that it’s most popular among people keen on browsing porn sites without leaving a trail. This is a great demonstration of how powerful browsing incognito can be as a weapon for protecting online privacy. The browser deletes your trail once you close the tab or window. As long as you navigate the web in this mode, anyone who accesses your computer, tablet, or smartphone won’t see your browsing history, cookies, or temporary Internet files.

That being said, private/incognito mode has some limitations. For instance, your Internet service provider can still see your browsing activity. The websites you visit can also keep track of your online actions. Still, there’s no harm in leveraging it as one of the multiple tools at your disposal that increases your anonymity online and protects your privacy.

4. Use a virtual private network (VPN)

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A VPN creates a private encrypted tunnel of communication on a public Internet connection. It enhances your anonymity and privacy by masking your IP address thus making it hard for anyone to attribute an online action to you. Using a VPN is especially useful when you are browsing the web on public WiFi such as at a coffee shop, library, mall, or airport.

There are numerous VPN solutions available in the market. They range from the free to the ones that come at a premium. The VPN product that’s most ideal will depend on your budget, how reputable the vendor is, and the level of privacy you want.

5. Don’t click on any link unless you are completely sure of its authenticity

Phishing is one of the oldest and most effective techniques for obtaining confidential information without express authorization. The attacker attempts to deceive an individual into sharing sensitive personal or business information. They do this by sending emails that seem to originate from legitimate sources such as a bank, educational institutional, government agency, or one’s employer.

These emails will urge the recipient to urgently click on a link and confirm certain confidential information (such as passwords, credit card numbers, or social security numbers) if they don’t want their system authorization revoked or their bank or credit card frozen. By falling for this trick, you’ll be relaying the data directly to the attacker.

But sharing your personal information isn’t the only danger you are exposed to if you click on these rogue links. You could download malware onto your device or land on a virus-infected webpage.

To avoid clicking a fraudulent link, hover your cursor over it and see the real name of the destination URL. If the domain isn’t exactly the same as that of the organization the email claims to originate from, do not click on it.

Further, no reputable institution will ask for your password or credit card number via an email. If in doubt, get in touch with the institution directly via their official phone and email contacts (not the ones on the email). As always, it’s better to be safe than sorry.

6. Protect your mobile devices

In 2016, the number of mobile Internet users surpassed desktop users for the first time. Given the convenience, growing computing power, and affordability of smartphones, the future is decisively mobile. The average person spends several hours each week on their phone browsing the web, responding to emails, catching up with friends on social media, watching videos, or playing games. It’s therefore important that you devote as much attention (if not more) to protecting your privacy on mobile devices as you do on desktop computers.

It begins with securing the phone with a passcode, password, or pattern lock. It may feel like a chore to have to enter it each time you want to access the phone but it is a critical layer of protection if your phone is stolen, lost or falls into the hands of someone who’s curiosity gets the better of them. For this layer of protection to work though, the passcode, password or pattern needs to be sufficiently complex as make it hard for someone to guess it.

A second privacy precaution for mobile is to only download apps from legitimate stores (such as Google Play Store and the iOS App Store). Apps on these stores have to pass a rigorous set of security checks before they are made available to end-users. If you download apps from third-party sites, you run the risk of introducing harmful spyware onto your mobile device.

Third, enable remote wiping (or install an app if your phone doesn’t have the functionality). That way, if the phone is stolen or lost, you can wipe it clean of all personal data. Anyone who comes across it cannot access this sensitive information. Fourth, disable lock screen alerts. It would defeat your privacy goals if you were to have a passcode on your phone but still allow screen notifications.

7. Protecting online privacy via Google Alerts

The worldwide web is a vast space with billions of web pages. It’s impossible for anyone to manually monitor this enormous virtual universe for instances where their privacy and anonymity may be in danger. Fortunately, Google Alerts can do the legwork for you.

All you need to do is set up alerts for your name and define how frequently the alerts should be sent to you (if you aren’t a prominent person, weekly or monthly should work). With that, you’ll know quickly whenever your name comes up in conversation somewhere on the Internet.

8. Use your main email address and phone number sparingly

You have to provide an email address and sometimes a phone number to register on most websites or to access certain online services. If you provide your primary email address and number whenever you are prompted for one, you’ll end up with an overwhelming volume of spam over time and numerous unwanted phone calls from aggressive marketers. Instead, create one or more disposable email addresses for online shopping, mailing list subscription, website registration, and any activity that isn’t of long-term relevance to your personal or work life.

Protecting online privacy is possible

Huge data breaches, marketers stalking you, and shady characters downloading photos you share on social networks are just examples of the privacy risks the average Internet user is faced with on the daily. Fortunately, you can do something about protecting online privacy. By applying these eight tips, you have greater control of your personal data online and can better protect your privacy on the web.

Featured image: Shutterstock

Stephen M.W.

Stephen regularly writes about technology, business continuity, compliance and project management. He's worked with companies such as Canva.com, EnergyCentral.com, and Citibank.

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Stephen M.W.

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