Although we like to think of the internet as being a private space, it rarely is.
Every website we visit and every link we click is noted and stored. Every viewed image leaves a digital footprint, and every Google search string is saved in perpetuity.
Despite those ubiquitous data collection pop-up messages on websites, much of this information harvesting happens in the background without our knowledge or consent.
Data is stored on remote servers in undisclosed locations by anonymous companies, before being resold and used in ways we might not approve of if we were consulted (which we’re not).
From web browsing histories influencing the adverts we see through to customer databases being stolen by hackers, it’s increasingly difficult to maintain online privacy.
Many of us are rightly concerned at the prospect of everything we do and view being stored on offshore servers, being used years in the future for purposes we’ll rarely be informed about.
Fortunately, there are plenty of ways to fight back against the constant harvesting of personally identifiable information (known in the industry as PII).
Eight ways to maintain online privacy
1. Use two web browsers
This is highly advisable if you share a computer, tablet or smartphone with other people, and don’t want your browsing history being predictively suggested or form data being auto-filled.
Installing a second web browser with raised privacy settings prevents other people discovering you’ve been gift shopping or job hunting.
2. Periodically erase your web history
This only deletes locally-stored information – websites will retain knowledge of past visits. However, erasing your web history does prevent anyone seeing it on that device.
Cookies and saved login credentials may be lost in the process, but deleting old web history data frees up additional space on a hard drive, potentially making web browsers run faster.
3. Use a cloaking tool
These platforms run frustratingly slowly at times, but they prevent third parties spying on you by bouncing content around networks before delivering it to your device.
4. Be sparing about what you share
There are countless cautionary tales of personal data overshares, such as people posting upcoming holiday itineraries only to have their homes raided by burglars while they’re away.
Social media should be used sparingly (if at all); only accept cookies on websites you’re happy to share data with; avoid uploading detailed personal profiles onto bulletin boards.
5. Cover your webcam
A key step in maintaining online privacy is to ensure you’re not visible to the world. Webcams can be hijacked and set to covertly record, with footage used for blackmail purposes.
Webcam covers can be purchased online very cheaply, but you could fashion a free solution by placing masking tape/Blu-tac/folded cardboard across the camera lens.
6. Don’t trust public WiFi networks
We’ve previously discussed the risks of insecure public WiFi networks, where data is unencrypted and anyone nearby with a laptop could be spying on everything you do.
If you need to access the internet via public WiFi, use a VPN or Tor to ensure sensitive data like banking logins can’t be spied upon, and keystrokes can’t be logged.
7. Create strong passwords
It’s a sad indictment of our collective lack of imagination that the most commonly used passwords include “password”. Hackers could easily guess this, before raiding online accounts.
Use complex alphanumeric passwords which are far harder to guess. Alternatively, install a password manager utility, which stores login credentials for numerous sites and apps.
8. Erase unnecessary software
From redundant browser extensions to used-once software, any program could be uploading information you’d rather it didn’t. Delete non-essential software from each device you use.
As well as freeing up storage space and improving operating performance, it’ll minimise the amount of data you’re surrendering. Just ensure you leave antivirus software in place…