28 January 2023

13 Things you can do right now to protect your privacy on the internet.

Online privacy 101

13 Things you can do right now to protect your privacy on the internet.

Have you Googled yourself lately? Chances are your life has been laid bare by one of the hundreds of data vendors. They scoop up your personal information from many different corporate and public sources and weave it together into a public page about you.  The story they are telling about you right now might be accurate, or it might be very inaccurate.  But the chances are that anyone who is looking for you will come across this information.  It often includes your home address, phone number(s), family relations, family history, emails, neighbors, work place, perhaps your polling place, any political contributions you’ve made, where you went to school, and on and on.

The suggestions in this article won’t make you invisible.  Think of these ideas as a first tactical step towards reclaiming personal privacy, helping to staunch the constant bleeding of your personal information.

1. Start using a Virtual Private Network (VPN) whenever you use the internet. A good VPN will mask your identifying internet (IP) address and make you more difficult to track.  The VPN I use every moment on my laptop and mobile phone is Mullvad.net.  What is a VPN you ask? It’s a service that encrypts your internet connection, allowing your location to appear to be somewhere else.  It make it difficult for your ISP to track your web browsing activity.

2. Use a private DNS service.  Domain name services tell your web browser where to find a website. It converts a website name to an IP address, which is a string of numbers that tells your browser how to find the website. It happens invisibly to you, and you hardly even know its there. Usually, your internet service provider (ISP) automatically assigns your device to its own DNS servers. Never trust your ISP since they have an interest in tracking all do you on the internet. They can and do sell this information. Much of it is gleaned by your use of their DNS server.  Understanding DNS is worth an hour of your time. Once you realize how much of your privacy is surrendered by DNS usage, you’ll never be content to have your ISP automatically assign you to their DNS server, ever again.

There are various DNS providers out there who purport to protect your privacy. If you use the Mullvad VPN service mentioned above in step 1, they provide this service.  You may want to look into OpenNic, OpenDNS or CloudFlare.  

3. Get a post office box.  This is an old school offline step, but simply stop sharing where you live.  If an online service won’t accept a PO Box, most post offices these days will let you use their street address.  Ask your post office for their package delivery street address, and use that. I even changed my credit card mailing address to a PO Box, and I have no problems.  Now I use that address when I buy something online. Move as much routine billing to your PO Box, including electric bill, investment accounts, property tax bills – if its coming to your house, change it to your PO Box.

4. Practice good social media hygiene. Make your personal social media accounts private, and require new followers to make a request to follow you.   Unless you are earning your living by being an influencer, just give up on the idea.  Make your accounts private, and opt out of indexing.

5. Weed unknown followers from your social media accounts. Eliminate anyone you don’t know, or whom you have a tenuous relationship.  Don’t worry about hurting feelings. If you have thousands of followers, chances are you don’t know who several hundred of them are.  Get rid of them. They might be fake accounts harvesting your data.

6. Make your landline phone number private.  If you still even have a landline, it is worth it to pay the phone company a few bucks a month for a “private listing” and to opt out of the phone book. Morally, you should be able to opt out for free, but in my experience they charge you a fee to NOT be listed in their directory.  Better yet, just cancel your landline phone.

7. Get a 2nd mobile phone line and use it for commercial business.  There are many options out there to add a second wifi calling line to your phone. I recommend not using a free service since nothing is really free. I personally use a $8/mo option to add a phone number to Skype. If anything comes at me through my Skype service, I know to ignore it. There may be better options.

8. Get a second or backup email address.  Or better, abandon your current email address to the spammers and start fresh with a new email address that you never use to log into websites, but only share with people you care about.  Separating your personal life from those pursuing you commercially on the internet is a good step.  A fresh email can move you in that direction.

9. For website you use regularly,  investigate the available opt-out settings they have to discourage the sharing of your information.  Facebook, online newspapers, banks, credit card websites…. Wherever you find yourself logging in, go into the settings and see what options you have to prevent sharing of information.  

10. Use a password manager.  If you are like 99.9% of other people on the internet, you re-use passwords. Your passwords and PINs probably have your birthdate in it, or a kids name, or some other personal information. There are many good password managers out there (I use Roboform). They can help you generate a strong unique password for each website and assist you in logging in. The good ones will work across all of your devices, no matter the operating system.

11. Sign up for alerts at HaveIBeenPwned.com.  This site searches through collections of hacked and leaked data. If it finds your email address it will alert you.  Over time you will be amazed at how often your data has been compromised.  While it won’t claw back your personal data,  it will make you aware of how your information has been compromised.

12. Switch to a private messenger. This can be uncomfortable because perhaps most of your friends on an insecure social network.  I personally prefer Signal Messenger for end to end encrypted messaging.  I started by requiring my kids to use it for family communication (since I paid for their phones, they agreed).  

From there, slowly begin adding close friends individually. It’s an opportunity to explain to them what you have learned about becoming less visible to surveillance capitalism that wants to track your every move.  Which ever secure messaging platform you decide to use,  become an advocate for it.  Get people you care about to use it.

13. When you are not using your phone, just shut it off.  We haven’t even really talked about location privacy.  For now, just know its ok for you to go offline once in a while. Don’t feel bad about shutting your phone off. You shouldn’t have to be constantly available to the world, responding to every beep, buzz and vibration your phone emits.  Shutting off your phone reduces the constant leak of information that your phone drips every minute of the day, minimizing the“attack surface” for spammers, scammers, hackers and trackers.

Privacy isn’t cheap.

Privacy should be free, but unfortunately it is not.  I realize that some of these ideas cost money. A PO Box can cost more than $100/year.  Making your phone number private can cost $5/mo.  A password manager might cost $50/year or more. A second phone line will cost at least $8/mo, unless you want to use a free service that will just sell your data to pay for the free service.  The data brokers that are flogging your information in a Google search are just the tip of the ice berg.  The entire internet has been built around “free” services that are paid for by selling you as the product to advertisers.

Admittedly, this article scratches the surface. More paranoid people can take things a lot further.  But I think the above steps represent a model for thinking about privacy and how its compromised.  

Completing this steps won’t make you invisible, but it will make you more aware. Reclaiming your personal privacy is work.  For now, just do what you can, stem the bleeding, and slowly, I’m confident you’ll find yourself making progress. 

#privacy #onlineprivacy #dataprivacyday #openpgp

No comments:

Post a Comment