As the internet continues to evolve, and smartphone platforms help us to accomplish more and more of the communications we make each day, there is a growing focus on privacy for digital and online activities.
People want to feel like they are safe and secure online, not like they're being surveilled all of the time in sneaky, deliberate ways. To that end, many users are looking to defend themselves with technologies that will help them browse the internet or use digital applications with some measure of privacy and anonymity. In fact, there are some easy ways to change your web surfing habits to get more privacy online.
Changing Browser Settings
One of the very first steps to making your internet use more private is to look at all available browser settings that can change how public your online activities are. Some browsers have a dedicated privacy mode that you can turn on in order to browse the web in a less visible way. How-To Geek talks about the ubiquity of private mode and how to access it on different browser systems.
Users can also change the ways that online session data containers called “cookies” are controlled or stored – typically, different websites create cookies in order to track users. They promote these cookies as helping to personalize or customize the webpage for a given user – but increasingly, cookies are also used to deliver personal information to third parties. So users who value privacy over convenience are likely to instruct their browsers to clear all cookies on a regular basis, which helps quite a lot with internet privacy.
Sandboxing and Alternative Search Practices
Another way to change your internet footprint is with a practice called sandboxing, which generally refers to containing certain online activities and walling them off from others. One common example is the use of Facebook. Facebook is such a social media giant, and so many people use it, that it’s really become a household name for both personal and enterprise use – but it's also well known for being one of the biggest tattletales of the web, spreading your private information out to buyers and other parties. So some experts recommend using one dedicated browser for Facebook, and another browser for other online activity – this will limit the data that Facebook can collect about you when you're not actively on its website.
Others also suggest limited use of Google – its search engine, its private user drive and other services – to increase web invisibility. Alternative search engines like Duck Duck Go can help make your searches more private.
VPNs: Encryption Tunnels for Internet Traffic
When it comes to shielding your online activity from the public, a VPN is an excellent way to go.
Virtual private network tunnels act to encrypt data from a source, and decrypt it at its destination. By using one of these privacy tools, you can make sure that outside parties don't have access to the data that you're sending as it flows through a local area network.
Another plus with VPNs is that they're commonly acknowledged to be legitimate online security tools, as they are often used for enterprise activities. So it's not going to seem strange or eccentric for you to use a VPN to protect personal private data as well. The VPN is particularly useful when you are accessing the internet through an open public “hot spot” because it’s so easy for hackers to intercept the data as it moves to and from your computer. But even at home, you can be vulnerable to this kind of activity without encryption. This Guardian article goes over some of the basics around personal VPN use. There are plenty of free VPN services out there to choose from.
Another common privacy strategy is the use of something called Tor, which stands for “The Onion Router.”
Using a global network of volunteer infrastructure, Tor makes data largely untraceable back to an individual user. The principle of onion routing involves encrypting communications in the application layer. An explanatory Forbes article explains how Tor works on a systems of “relays” to intermingle traffic and make an individual user’s footprints difficult to trace. The guide also explains how Tor can make internet use slightly slower, but why it’s worth it for so many users.
Encrypt Chat and Email
Another helpful tip is to use available technologies to make your chats and emails more private through encryption. A tool called Cryptocat can help with online chatting. Mailvelope is an application that can help users to encrypt their emails. Temporary email addresses can also help by negating the need to give out your real email address in order to view or post content on websites that require registration.
As the debate rages on internet privacy, check out all of these options for changing the ways that you access the internet and protecting yourself from some of the more egregious forms of data collection. Sometimes, a little privacy just makes us feel a little better about routine web activity, especially these days, as cybersecurity becomes a real hot topic for governments, businesses and everyone else.