“You have the right to remain silent. Everything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law…,” the Miranda Rights, a warning given to every criminal suspect in the United States. Unfortunately there is no such warning when you connect to the Internet and load your browser, maybe there should be?

“You have the right not to divulge any personal information when you go online. Everything you put online can and may be used against you by anyone who can gain access to such information,” thanks to Edward Snowden, we now know what that really means, that the NSA and government contractors, as well as corporations, collect and store your personal information, your phone records, your emails, your credit card transactions, your search history, your purchase history and probably a ton of other data points. While public attention is diverted to the Jason Bourne-like manhunt of Edward Snowden by the US Government, the more important conversation about  the most-likely unconstitutional wholesale collection of personal information of US citizens and non-citizens alike is quickly swept under the rug.

Most people are unaware what exactly about them is captured and who, in addition to just the NSA, captures it, but more importantly what they can do to limit the amount of information others may store. Using the Internet in a meaningful way and protecting your privacy 100% is not going to happen, but there are a few things you can do to significantly limit the information third parties can see about your activities:

Don’t use real information wherever permissible!

Dear I say it? Your best defense is to simply not use your real name and chose an alias instead, just be sure you aren’t violating any terms and conditions. Sure, websites want to discourage this practice because they desire real information, but have you ever wondered why they care?

Needless to say, there are instances when you have to use real information, to open bank accounts, make purchases, buying airline tickets, or on PayPal for example.

Fill in as little as permissible and if you must, use fake maiden names, fake dates of birth etc to answer account recovery or security questions. Make sure you save the info somewhere in case you lose your password or your bank asks for verification and you actually have to answer those questions!

Use Secure Usernames and Password

Don’t use anything others can easily guess, meaning don’t use a version of your name as a username and create strong passwords that are more than 12 digits long and contain upper and lower case letters, numbers and special characters and of course can’t be found in any dictionary known to man.

Use a Password Manager to protect your usernames and passwords. That way both usernames and passwords can be randomly generated and stored. Needles to say your master password to access your vault must be first rate and you must remember it. LastPass is very popular, so is 1Password for Mac.

Use More Than One Email Address

Separate your email by using more than one email address. Start with a minimum of two, one personal for friends, family and everyone you trust and one to sign up for products and services, websites, etc… If you work, have a separate work email, which already increases this to three email addresses. This is the bare minimum! Ideally you would have separate accounts for spam, password recoveries, shopping etc…

Why you ask? The more email addresses you have the less likely that a security breach will reveal much information about you and the more difficult for marketers to create profiles on you. Personally I have more email addresses than I can remember – this is where the password manager comes in handy!

Don’t Respond to Dodgy Emails – EVER!

Be cautious when reading email! Not everything that looks good actually is. Just because an email looks like as if came from PayPal doesn’t mean it did. Don’t click on links in emails unless you are 100% sure they are good. It is a lot safer to type the address yourself!

Use Encryption to Protect Your Important Email

Email has become the business communication tool of choice and today more official/business communication happens via email than over the phone. Here’s the rub: Email is an insecure communications channel. If you wouldn’t put it on the back of a postcard don’t send it via regular email, instead use encryption.

There are several methods to send encrypted email: encrypt the entire email, send an encrypted file or document via regular email, or use a secure messaging service to safely get your message across. A quick Google search “how to encrypt email,” you could include your email client or operating system of choice to narrow down the search, will get you started.

Use Encryption to Protect Your Internet Connection

Data sent between your device and your Internet provider or access point can be intercepted and it tells a lot about you: what you are searching for, the sites you are visiting, you location, details about the device and software you are using and much more. Encrypting your Internet connection will stop this data mining and  becomes especially important when you are using shared access such as public Wi-Fi at airports, in hotels and coffee shops, because here the possibility exists that someone may actually gain access to the sites you are logging into. The most popular (and easiest) ways to secure your Internet connection are:

VPN

A Virtual Private Network or VPN is a method to establish a secure connection to the Internet and hide your identity. Basically you put a server between you and the World Wide Web to which you establish an encrypted, therefore secure, connection. The VPN server then becomes your new identity on the web, replacing the IP address your ISP assigned to you with an IP address the VPN server assigns. Traffic between the VPN server and the Internet is not encrypted.

Tor

Tor is a network of relay servers. It is comprised of two parts, client software (the part you install on your computer) and the network the software securely connects to. Your traffic is routed through at least 3 nodes and, just like with a VPN, your IP address changes from the one your ISP assigned to you to the IP address of the “exit relay.” Traffic between the “exit relay” and the Internet is not encrypted. Tor is completely free to use, but it is slow compared to commercial VPNs.

HTTPS

Many websites offer HTTPS, the encrypted version of HTTP. When you connect to your bank or making an online purchase you are already using this type of connection. Unfortunately you depend on the sites you are connecting to to offer HTTPS, if they don’t, then there is little you can do about it. If you have the choice, choose HTTPS over HTTP. Some browsers have plugins to automate the process. Search for “https everywhere.”

Don’t Use Social Media Sites

Social Media and Privacy don’t mix, period! The problem is, social media sites are where things are happening and it is almost impossible to escape their grasp. If you must use networks like Facebook, Twitter, Google Plus, consider signing up under an alias or a nickname; however, be aware that this strategy violates many site’s terms and conditions.

The other important aspect of using social media concerns the content you post. The social media experience is much richer if everyone posts real and interesting information, the problem is it can (and will) be used against you. Because you can’t know today what someone else may use against you tomorrow, consider carefully what you post and how much access you grant social media apps to real information about you, location services on your smartphone for example.

Log Out When You Are Done!

Many services (Google, Yahoo, Facebook, etc…) monitor your Internet usage as long as you are logged in, so log out once you are done! This sounds obvious and easy, but isn’t, because often you don’t really know all the sites you are logged into at any given time. For example if you use Google Chrome, most likely you are logged in to your Google account because of all the features you only get when you log in, like message and email alerts, customized search results, and targeted advertising etc… Chrome is a great browser and works fine even when you are not logged in!

Be aware that Facebook has been in hot waters over their tracking activities again and again, they don’t even care if you log out, they’ll track you anyway… Which brings me to the next points:

Clear Your Browsing History and Cookies

Whatever you don’t have others can’t collect, so clear your browsing history and delete your cookies often. You can effortlessly accomplish this by setting this up in your browser’s preferences, for example delete your browsing history when you close your browser. Cookies are a bit trickier, not because you can’t automate their crunching as simply as ridding yourself of your browsing history, but because some actually contain desirable information. Your bank for example stores cookies on your hard drive making it easier for you to log in. The best way to deal with cookies is to whitelist some, delete the rest and run a scanner to identify tracking cookies and anything else you might have missed.

Scan Your System for Malware

Regularly scan your system for viruses and other forms of malware like tracking cookies etc. There are many good anti-malware programs available (in no particular order: ClamXav, Sophos, Avast and many others) and they are your best defense against such threats.

It is also a good idea to wipe your hard drive and reinstall your operating systems at least once a year. This, unfortunately cumbersome procedure, deletes every line of code from your heard drive, hence insures that nothing fishy has taken up residence.

Summary

The best way to improve your privacy is to learn about possible threats and then address them one by one. Some solutions are easy to implement (logging out when you are done), other take more time and effort (encrypting email). Keep in mind your privacy also depends on the efforts of others. For example, there is no way to keep your private email protected if others broadcast it to the world, rather than using bcc when sending an email to a group.

Protecting your privacy is both, more difficult and more important than ever. But there are some easy steps everybody can take to ensure a reasonable level of privacy and protection of sensitive data. Online privacy hinges on the balance between security and convenience, if it is too difficult or cumbersome to do, you won’t use it, if it is too simple it isn’t secure. The right level of security very much depends on the level of threats you are facing. The more important and valuable something is to you, the more sophisticated the protection should be. The less important, well, you get the idea…

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