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How to protect your online privacy

Online privacy (also known as 'internet privacy') is the privacy protection in place for a user that protects their data, and digital identity from being used to track the user, and eventually market to the user based on the information gleaned from their habits and personally identifiable information. The most common elements which reduce online privacy are a users search history, social tracking signals, website cookies, IP address, and the click-through history.

Why is online privacy important?

Online privacy reaches and impacts every facet of a person's online and even some offline activity. This reach can be used, and is often abused by governments as well as private organizations and businesses. This exchange of information is framed a give-and-take relationship where a user gives up some personally information and habits in exchange for improved services. But this is often not the case, and the only 'benefit' the user receives is the barrage of ads, and direct marketing emails at best, and the violation of their civil liberties at worst. So online privacy, though not presented as such, is part of the foundational right to freedom and self determination that is every person's God-given right.

Privacy vs security

Online privacy and security have areas where they overlap, but they are distinct in that online security generally refers to steps that a person can take to reduce the chances of personal or financial damage by online activity. Online security entails steps such as using strong passwords, keeping software up-to-date (to ensure security updates are installed), the ability to understand and identify phishing, and other similar illegal activity.

Privacy, on the other hand, is the control over the information that service providers are able to collect and generate a profile for a user. This is a profile which can then be used to reliably identify a person through their digital fingerprint that includes search history, social activity, website cookies, IP address, and their browsing click-through history. Proponents of online privacy agree that each user should have complete control over the information collected, and the way it is used, and their say-so should be through explicit consent. Another point of contention is that each activity which produces privacy-damaging pieces of data should only be the result of an explicit action by the user to consent to the collection and use of the data.

Biggest online privacy issues

There are a growing list of privacy considerations that users need to keep in mind, but there are some fundamental concerns which need to be addressed first. These privacy issues have the most impact on how detailed each person's trackable profile looks, and how detailed it is. Take care to address each of these areas, the best you can.

  • Search history

    This refers to a user's search engine activity on search engines. Search engines track the behavior and search activity of users to customize their search results to match the interests of the user. When logged in traditional search engines will use all the accounts available information to customize results and to serve advertisements to the user. But even when not logged in, search engines utilize the user's IP address to 'identify' the user, and apply similar customization for results and advertisements for that user. To avoid this user profiling, you can use private search engines like Thorgate which do not collect nor pass any information (other than the search query) to a search engine and display the results in an unmodified manner.

  • Social tracking

    Social media websites, such as Facebook, track users across the web as they visit websites. This tracking is mostly enabled by the login functionality websites incorporate into their architecture, which allows a new user to log into their website (and use their services) using their Facebook (or other social) credentials. With this functionality enabled, social media services like Facebook are able to track their users across the web. The tracking is extremely accurate when users are logged into a service like Facebook, and then browse the web leaving a detailed track of their activity and behavior for social media sites like Facebook to collect and use to serve advertisements. To avoid being tracked by social media sites it is important to only access your account in a private web browser tab, and log out completely when done before continuing any other online activity. Ideally, you should delete your social media accounts, but that is easier said than done for most people.

  • Cookies

    Browser cookies are an essential part of the modern web--they enable a personalized experience, keep track of your login statususernameetc, keep track of your shopping cart content, and so on. In addition to these functions, cookies can be used for tracking purposes. For example Google Analytics which is the most widely used website traffic analytics software, uses tracking cookies to track users across the web. Cookies have an expiration date when they are placed, but the expiration can be very long making them essentially permanent. To help avoid tracking cookies there are two primary options which can help improve your privacy: first, ensure that your browser's privacy settings is set to not accept third-party cookies (this might break some functionality on some sites), and second when possible use a private tab/window when browsing--private tabs/windows delete cookies after the window/tab is closed.

  • IP address

    An IP address is like a digital address that is assigned to an internet connection. For consumers an IP address is assigned to their account by their Internet service provider. There are two types of IP address: static and dynamic. A static IP address does not change, but a dynamic IP can be changed from time-to-time, though it often behaves like a static IP address. This makes it possible for websites and tracking services to identify a user by their IP address. The IP address by itself does not reveal personally identifiable information, but it can be used in combination with other data to identify a user reliably. The IP address is also used to get the geographic data of a user. This is often used by search engines to customize local search results. To avoid being tracked and profiled by IP address, users can use a proxy service, also known as a VPN service. These services route your internet data through their own servers, essentially hiding you behind their IP address so that trackers cannot access your personal IP address.

  • Click-through history

    Click-through describes the action of clicking on a link on search engine result page. When a user performs a search on Google, for example, the list of links which are displayed on the page are tracked, and the clicks which happen on each link is tracked and associated with a user's profile to further customize search results, and improve advertising profile for that user. This type of tracking can be avoided by using privacy focused search engines like Thorgate which do not track this behavior and do not pass any click-through data to the originating search engines.

  • Browser fingerprinting

    Modern browsers volunteer a lot of detailed information about the browser as well as the device being used to access websites. Through this information, and in combination with other identifiable data websites can identify and track users and devices. It is very difficult to make a dent into browser fingerprinting, but using a VPN, and browsing using private tabs/windows are a couple of simple steps you can take to reduce the accuracy of the fingerprint.

  • Mobile app privacy

    Smartphone apps can potentially get access to a great wealth of information once installed. Users often just click through the privacy statements and the level of access notices that the app requires. This results in the app having deep access to the user's data, including call history, list of contact, and location. The way to avoid this type of loss in privacy is to closely scrutinize the data access requests that apps make, and to avoid using apps which simply require too much access, especially the functionality of the app does not depend on having access to the data to which it requests access.

How to improve your online privacy

Each of the areas mentioned above can impact your online privacy. Addressing each point of weakness will improve your privacy, and reduce the ability of trackers to build an accurate profile on you. The most basic step you can take to help improve your online privacy are:

  • Delete cookies regularly, or install a browser extension that deletes cookies automatically upon the closing of the app or as scheduled.
  • Log out of Facebook and other social media platforms before browsing other websites, and do not use Facebook and other social media account to log into third-party websites.
  • Additionally, when possible use a private browser tab/window to log into and use Facebook and other social media sites.
  • User a private search engine like Thorgate to keep your search history from being linked to your online profile.

To further, you can pay for VPN services which will further anonymize you as you browse the web and use online services.