Online Privacy & Safety: How to Stay Safe While on the Internet— A Brief Guide

Online Privacy: The Basics

When talking about online privacy, data protection and safety there are a couple of basics that every Internet user should be aware of. These days the Internet is full of dangers lurking around like malicious spyware and malware that could steal your data without your knowledge. In this short guide, we are going to discuss some of the basics of privacy that will help you stay safe while browsing the web.

Online Tracking

Almost all websites nowadays track online activity for various purposes. The tracking technology used by these websites can track users’ movements and actions site to site. This data is then used to create a more personalized version of the information displayed to users digitally. The information is usually stored next to an anonymous numerical identifier rather than your actual identity. Most browsers give you access over what data can be kept and stored by such websites. For example, restricting cookies or using private browsing features can help increase privacy. However, these are still not foolproof methods and may leave trackable traces.

Browsers also provide a “Do Not Track” (DNT) setting as well. This prevents advertisers, analytics, and social media sites from tracking your online activity. However, DNT is honored voluntarily by websites, so most websites ignore the setting and track data anyway.

Then there are cookies. They are small pieces of data deposited by sites that a user visits. Cookies generally include information like login, registration, preferences, minor saved information, etc. First-party cookies are used by legit websites to track results for advertising and analytics. Third-party cookies are used to communicate data to an advertising hub which in turn shares that data with relevant online marketers. Browser extensions like “Disconnect” prevent third-party tracking.

Flash cookie which is also referred to as supercookie is a bit more persistent than the regular cookie. These cookies are not affected by standard procedures for erasing cookies, clearing history, erasing the cache, or erasing private data from the browser. They are persistent and hard to erase. But, if you are using the Firefox browser an add-on by the name of “Better Privacy” can help you erase these cookies.

Then comes in fingerprinting, it is a new form of tracking that is replacing cookies rapidly. They are also harder to block than cookies. They also leave no evidence on the computer, so there is no way to detect when you are being tracked. This new tracking technology is difficult to prevent, leaves zero traces, and is semi-permanent. One way to block fingerprinting is to disable javascript, but that will result in some elements of the webpage like audio and video not being able to load.

Connecting to the Internet

Internet is generally accessed by an Internet Service Provider (ISP), a Cellular Data Network, or a WiFi Hotspot. Each computer that is connected to the internet has a unique identifier or address known as the IP address. The IP address is composed of dots and numbers. This address enables users to communicate information across the internet.

The IP address doesn’t provide personally identifiable information but, because your ISP knows your IP address, it is a possible weak point when it comes to protecting your online privacy. Internet Service Providers have varying policies for how long they store IP addresses. Unfortunately, most ISPs do not reveal their data retention policies. That’s why it is difficult to acquire a privacy friendly ISP. Some ISPs also share their customers’ Internet activity with various third parties and collect browsing history to deliver targeted advertisements.

The geographical region of a computer can be detected using IP addresses. The level of accuracy of detected location depends upon how your ISP assigns IP addresses. Sites can detect your geo-location this way. Blocking IP Addresses can be done by using services such as Tor, proxies, or Virtual Private Network (VPN). A VPN replaces your IP address. A VPN user can obtain an IP address from any gateway city the VPN service provides. However, picking a good VPN service is difficult. Most experts say that VPN services usually have major security flaws that can put your private data at risk. Determining how secure a VPN is, and precisely what it is doing with your data is difficult. Most privacy experts advise avoiding free VPNs, which may sell your data in exchange for the free VPN service.

Similarly, if you are using a mobile network, cellular data to connect to the Internet then your service provider will be collecting and tracking your activity and data usage.

Privacy Policies

Protecting your data and privacy online also calls for an understanding of basic privacy policies of apps and websites. To properly secure your information, you must know how your information is being used, stored, or sold.

Passwords

Using strong passwords is a crucial step in data protection and privacy. Whenever you are creating a password make sure it is long and composed of alpha-numeric data and symbols. Strong passwords are the first line of defense against theft and comprise of your private data and information. Endangering data on your phone, your banking information, your email, your medical records, or other personal information could be disastrous. However, many people still fail to follow proper practices when selecting passwords to protect important information.

Similarly, many websites that store your personal information like e-mail, photos, documents, data storage sites, and money management sites require a password for protection. However, password-protected websites and web services are becoming more vulnerable because often people use the same passwords on various sites. Therefore, strong passwords can help users protect themselves against hackers, identity theft and other privacy invasions.

Below are a few tips that users should follow when creating passwords to ensure better security if their accounts.

  • When creating passwords make sure to create one that is of suitable length. The longer the password the harder it will be to crack. Long passwords render brute-force attack useless while short ones can easily be cracked by it.
  • Using special characters, particularly rare ones can boost your password strength. Also, make sure your passwords are alphanumeric and composed of upper case and lower case letters. All these combined will create a significantly strong password.
  • Never reuse, or recycle a password. Always use different passwords for each account and site. This will ensure that if your password is ever leaked not all your accounts and sites will be hacked.
  • Don’t use personal information or easily attainable information in your passwords. For example, avoid using birthdays, names, common sequences, etc.
  • Use a password manager program of an encrypted file to save all your passwords in case you ever forget them. You can also save passwords in a hard copy in a secure, locked location.
  • Enable two-factor authentication wherever available to ensure added security.

Wireless Networks & WiFi

Wireless networks & WiFi hotspots can be risky to connect to. Often they are not properly secured and may result in the violation of your privacy. Wireless networks provide a ton of benefits but they can be very easy to break into. That’s why proper security features should be applied to such networks and to systems that are connected to such networks.

The standard automated installation process disables many security features to simplify the installation. Not only can data be stolen, modified, or destroyed, but programs and even extra computers can be added to the unsecured network without your knowledge. This risk is highest in densely populated neighborhoods and office buildings.

To protect yourself from vulnerabilities in a WiFi network it is important to use a good VPN service, use secure surfing (SSL), don’t allow your devices to connect to any WiFi network, disable file sharing, have a proper firewall enabled, and keep your computer up-to-date, make sure all security updates are in place.

Cross-Device Tracking & Mobile Apps

Cross-device tracking is when companies try to track user activity across multiple devices. For example, a website or and app will track a user’s activity across their smartphones, tablets, PCs, laptops, etc. This information is generally used by advertisers but has other purposes as well.

Smartphones and mobile devices use apps to access the Internet. These applications store your data similarly as websites and internet browsers do. Data is frequently mishandled and sold to third parties via mobile applications. App-makers collect such data and then sell it to third-party advertisers and marketers.

The data stored, shared, and sold by mobile apps may include: contacts, call logs, Internet data, calendar data, device’s location, device’s unique IDs, information about the app usage itself.

Instead of cookies, mobile apps use a phone’s mobile advertising identifier. The identifier is used by ad networks to track the activity of users. The identifiers have different names depending on the smartphone brand.

Originally Published on WomeninTechPK

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