It’s a misconception that the only people who need to worry about online privacy are those breaking the law or with something to hide. Everyone needs to worry about getting, and staying, secret online.
If you haven’t been safe with all of your information online—and let’s be realistic, most of us haven’t—it’s still worth cramming the lid back on this Pandora’s box. The process of securing your online and social life can seem overwhelming and daunting, but it doesn’t need to be. The really good news is that many of these solutions don’t require continuing action or thought once you set them up.
You can’t take back the years of unsecured Internet searches and data you’ve sent, but you can take several fast and many free steps today to stem the flood of personal information that you daily send out for unscrupulous people to steal or spy on.
First and foremost, evaluate your usage and vulnerabilities. Even if you lead a really boring life and don’t consider yourself a target, you have banking details, photographs, bills you pay online, and conversations that could be taken out of context that you need to protect.
1. Browse Smart
Stop and look at your browsing activity. If you’re getting ready to buy something online, take a second to double-check the web address. Are you sure you’re on the actual site you want to be on?
Spoof sites are notorious for picking URLs one or two letters off a legitimate site so you think you’re really buying from a mainstream merchandiser. Called typosquatting, this can happen with an innocent typo or misspelling when you’re searching for a site, or through a phishing email that misdirects you to a false site. Make sure you are where you think you are online.
If you’re sure that the site you’re on is the correct place, check the site security. This is right in the web address. If you’re planning to pay a bill or spend money at a site, try to make sure that the site is located at a HTTPS address, not HTTP. HTTPS is short for Hyper Text Transfer Protocol Secure, and means there’s encryption between your browser and the site you’re on. This helps protect your credit card information, for example, when you make a purchase online. It also offers some security for other information that you’re storing or sending on the site.
2. Evaluate Your Browser
You can, from your computer, run all of your Internet traffic through a VPN, or Virtual Private Network. There’s both free and paid options, and it is worth weighing out the best fit for your personal needs.
A VPN is a group of secured servers acting as a middle ground between your computer and the sites you end up on. This allows all of your incoming and outgoing data to be secure and secret, and allows you to evade cookies. You can mask your geographical location with a VPN, too, so sites can’t tell where in the world you’re located. This allows people in countries that restrict Internet sites to access free media, and allows people in ostensibly free countries to browse more hidden online.
A VPN is a powerful tool that once configured drastically minimizes third-party data-mining and snooping, and that’s important if you want your Internet activity to remain your own personal business. Many VPNs are a monthly subscription, but if you’re looking for a free way to immediately encrypt and hide your Internet browsing, Opera is subscription-free and has a built-in VPN you can enable. When you’re using public Wi-Fi this will also help keep locals from spying on you and stealing your information.
3. Chat Securely
Gone are the days where most of our conversations are via letter or phone call. Texting and chatting have replaced other forms of communication. There’s ways to make chats and texts more secure, and the first step is to stop sending any sensitive data over the integrated text service on your phone.
Instead, switch to a chat service that offers encryption and security, like Wickr Me, WhatsApp, Signal, Dust, Telegram Messenger, Silent Circle, or Viber. If you’re using Facebook messenger, and you need to discuss something that should really be private, switch to Facebook Messenger’s secret messages. They’re end-to-end encrypted. Apple users should note that Apple does offer encryption, but experts have qualms about the security.
4. Evaluate Your Email
Email is a little trickier for security. Services like Outlook and Gmail do allow encryption, but you have little to no control over your recipient’s security measures. In addition, your recipients might not even be using a secure network connection, and all of your sensitive data could be compromised.
If you really need to send sensitive information via email, try running it through Dropbox first. Really sensitive information shouldn’t ever be in your email, though, and if you make a habit of that it needs to be broken immediately. Email isn’t a secure way to transfer data, and it’s cumbersome to try to protect your information transfers.
It’s not necessary to get really paranoid and afraid about your data. Instead, be prudent and start adding some steps into your online life to make you, your family, and your employer’s information more safe and secure.