Today I was on Imgur researching for an article when I noticed a hilarious (and slightly creepy) ad. The ad (which you can see to the right here ->) was for a “geek” dating site. First, let me just say that I do not need to find a date because I happen to have the most wonderful, amazing, awesome partner in the world. Second, how does the Internet know I am a geek (aside from this website, of course)?
This funny little ad really got me thinking about how nosy the Internet really is. I know the privacy argument is not new but seriously? Is Google spying on us everywhere? Perhaps think about installing something like an adblock extension for Chrome. How much is too much? How far is too far? How can you protect your privacy online without sacrificing the total experience and the positive things the World Wide Web has to offer?
All good questions. The best advice I can give for protecting your privacy online actually comes from a woman I met at a party this weekend: “If you don’t want people to know it, don’t put it on the Internet.”
Simple, yet true. This goes for social media, personal blogs, websites, search forms, contests and more. This applies to any type of information you do not wish to have shared or potentially shared with the world. And never, ever make the mistake of thinking that because a site is “secure” or private, that your info will never be released. The recent Ashley Madison hack is a fine example of that. In fact, we could pull up plenty of hacks, data breaches and other examples of private information that was leaked or exposed online but it still comes back to “If you don’t want people to know it, don’t put it on the Internet.”
Now, if you want to take steps to protect your online privacy as much as possible, there are things you can do. Before we get into that, understand that one person’s view on what is acceptable to be shared and another’s can vary greatly. So your first step really should be to decide how comfortable you are with certain information being shared online. How much are you comfortable with sharing?
If you’re not comfortable sharing ANY information about yourself then one of your only options is to not use the Internet at all. This isn’t practical for most people today so another option is to go incognito each time you browse and use a fake name/account when using the Internet. The best way to do this is to create an alias for yourself with a complete profile down to name, age, sex, location and any other details you would be asked about yourself online. Keep all of this info in a file or a notebook somewhere secure so you don’t forget the made-up information. You can use this to create dummy emails or profiles on sites you wish to use. Just be aware that even this method is not completely secure as it can all still be traced back to your IP.
Next, you need to understand what Internet privacy (a subset of data privacy) really entails. While privacy concerns have been around since the very beginning of computer usage, many simply do not understand how it all works or what the real dangers are (and what they are not). Internet privacy issues could relate to Personally Identifying Information (PII) or non-PI info such as a site visitor’s behavior on a website.
The latter has many practical purposes. For example, I can see where my website visitors log onto my site from, certain demographics of the visitor, as well as what search terms were used to find the page/post they were viewing. However for the user, it can feel very intrusive if you know just how much info Google is collecting from you while you browse the Web. With all of this in mind, here are some basic ways to be safe and protect your privacy online:
- Don’t give any personal info that you do not feel comfortable with online. Again, this goes back to your own personal limits and comfort levels. Some people will be fine with their first name and email where others do not want to share even this. Know what you’re comfortable sharing and avoid sites that ask for me. Be cautious of sites that are overly intrusive or ask personal information irrelevant to the service you are getting from the site.
- Remember when using social media that nothing is ever really completely private (despite your settings) and many social networks will get picked up by search engines, making your public posts searchable.
- Manage your passwords carefully and responsibly. Don’t use the same password everywhere (despite how tempting it may be) and if you use a master password tool, still update passwords and your master password often.
- Disable GPS and Wi-Fi on your mobile device except for when you specifically need them.