Simple Ways to Reduce Your Digital Footprint
More businesses and individuals are using remote options than ever before. Whether online payment services, remote offices, or video conferencing tools like Zoom and Teams, the remote working world is growing fast. Yet, not without risk.
In 2020 alone, 500,000 Zoom user accounts were compromised, with much of that data sold on the dark web. Nowadays, relying solely on your ISP and antivirus to protect your data is simply not an option.
Privacy isn’t just important for employees and business either — an increasing number of everyday internet users are unknowingly putting their personal information up for grabs. Phishing, for example, is responsible for more than 90% of all data breaches.
With more and more of us falling victim to cyberthreats and attacks, the need for online privacy has never been greater. Whether inside the workplace or not, working to restore your online security is a necessity. So, what steps should you be taking to regain control of your online privacy? Let’s take a look.
What Is Online Privacy?
Online privacy, also known as digital privacy, covers the various ways you can protect your online data from cybercriminals, government entities, advertisers, and snoops.
Protecting your private information from data miners is the best way to fight back and get better control over how your online data is used. Let’s take a look at what forms of data miners may be collecting and how securing that data benefits you.
Common Types of Sensitive Data
The most common types of sensitive data are biometrics and personally identifiable information (PII). I know what you’re thinking — isn’t biometrics data actually PII? Well, yes. However, since this includes physical data, we’ll class it separately.
PII data breaches are commonly associated with identity theft and credit card fraud. Identifiable information includes personal data like your SSN, usernames, passwords, credit card information, drivers’ license number, physical address, bank account information, and more.
However, biometrics includes physical features like your retina, fingerprints, or facial structure, which can be used to identify you. These types of biometrics are often used as access control measures for mobile devices, sensitive apps, databases, or facilities with a high level of security clearance.
Benefits Of Protecting Your Online Privacy
Every time you open a browser, use an app, or connect to a network, you leave traces of information. If that’s not worrying enough, cybercriminals may use the data they steal to access sensitive information like your credit card or social security number. This leads to more serious criminal activity like identity theft and credit card fraud, which can cost you thousands of dollars in recovery efforts.
When you protect your digital privacy, you take back control over how companies and agencies use that information.
Using basic online security practices and adding trustworthy security software makes it easier to stop third parties (e.g., advertisers, government agencies, and ISPs) from hijacking your information.
Who Wants Your Data and Why
Search engines, advertisers, ISPs, cybercriminals, and government agencies all want your online data for different reasons, making it harder than ever to maintain digital privacy.
Many of these entities work together for a profit or to collect potentially useful information. The type of data collected and who collects it varies based on what the information is used for. Below are some common forms of collected data:
- First and last name, address, phone number, social security number, passport number, email, medical information, device data, usernames and passwords, your IP address, ISP, etc.
- Payment preferences, credit card numbers, banking information, credit history, outstanding debts, existing loans, etc.
- Browsing interests, social media use, ads clicked, shopping habits, sites visited, apps you use, time spent on sites, current service subscriptions, videos you watch, news you follow, etc.
What Do Companies Use The Data For?
Browsers, websites, and advertisers use your cookies, history, and user preferences to create a profile that tracks all of your online habits. That includes general browsing, ads you click on, download history, and shopping habits (among other things).
This profile is used to produce targeted advertising. Companies often work together to create targeted marketing solutions that show you specific ads, suggest specific websites, and more. Google and Facebook are notorious for tracking online activity and creating targeted ads based on user data.
Government agencies and ISPs also work together to track your IP address, usage data, and other habits. While this form of information gathering is intended to prevent and solve crime locally and internationally, suspected criminals aren’t the only ones being watched. Some countries even force ISPs to hand over user data like what websites you visit, bandwidth use, emails, and even your daily online habits.
Cybercriminals use the information they gain for far more nefarious purposes, including identity theft, financial fraud, and phishing. For example, stealing your credit card details and making fraudulent online purchases.
Thankfully, you can stop others from invading your online privacy by securing your apps, connected devices, browsers, and networks. Here are a few ways you can better hide your personal information to increase your online security.
Easy Ways to Protect Your Online Security
Use a Secure Browser
When you use browsers like Chrome, Edge, and Safari you give away more information than you may think.
Browsers track everything from the sites you visit to the products you buy online — if you let them. Many mainstream browsers aren’t non-profit either, so they can and will use your personal information to benefit themselves financially. Luckily, you can prevent browsers from tracking your internet activity.
Turn Off Unnecessary Trackers and Clean Your Browser
A simple way to increase your online privacy is to turn off ad preferences, usage history, web and app activity, and location history tracking. Make sure you also clean your browsing history, cookies, and cache regularly to prevent tracking and buildup that can cause sites to perform poorly.
You can usually find this tool in the history tab of your browser or in the settings menu:
- Chrome: Settings > Privacy & Security > Clear browsing history> choose what you want to clear (also includes security and privacy preferences)
- Safari: Settings > Safari > Clear History and Website data
- Edge: Settings and More > Settings > Clear browsing data > choose what you want to clear
Secure Browser Extensions
Using Chrome and other popular browsers doesn’t have to mean sacrificing your privacy. Each of the extensions below have features that prevent third parties from following your online footsteps — you don’t even need to install a new browser.
- PIA VPN for Chrome – Webcam and microphone blocking, the ability to choose websites that can bypass the VPN, prevent trackers, disable cookies, and 24/7 live chat support.
- LastPass – Save passwords to a secure database and log in to services automatically online without logging into Google.
- HTTPs Everywhere – Rewrites requests, connects to SSL, and automatically encrypts your traffic and defaults to HTTPs versions of the site if they exist.
- Privacy Badger – Blocks invisible third party trackers from following your online activity and allows you to choose sites to block.
- UBlock Origins – Lightweight extension that blocks ads, malware, and tracking without taking too much space on your device.
- DuckDuckGo – Site encryption to protect form data, prevents tracking, doesn’t collect or store your browsing data, and stops ad personalization.
There are plenty of alternative browser options out there that offer privacy if you don’t want to add security extensions to your existing Chrome, Safari, or Edge browser. See the table below for my top recommendations.
|Alternative Browsers for Increasing Online Privacy|
|Firefox||✅ Eliminates pop-ups.
✅ Available for macOS, Windows, Android, iOS, and Linux.
✅ Malware and virus protection.
✅ Allows you to sync passwords and manage site preferences.
✅ User-friendly interface.
|⛔ Sometimes slower on mobile devices.|
|UnGoogled Chromium||✅ Receives regular Chrome security updates.
✅ Available for Windows, macOS, and Linux.
✅ None of the privacy issues of Google, but the same basic interface.
✅ Doesn’t track browsing data and is open-source.
✅ Can import your bookmarks and settings from Chrome.
|⛔ Must choose your default search engine from a list of available options.|
|Tor||✅ Multi-layer encryption
✅ Available for Linux, macOS, Windows, and Android
✅ Blocks browser plugins (Flash, QuickTime, etc.)
✅ HTTPs Everywhere is pre-installed
|⛔ Browser extensions aren’t recommended.
⛔ No iOS app.
Opt Out & Update Regularly
You can turn off or opt out of many common app and website requests, as well as deny permissions to use certain hardware and software on your devices. If you blindly accept every acknowledgement or permissions prompt, you give sites and apps the right to use your data as they please.
Apps permissions can be divided into two main categories — install or runtime. Install permissions are the ones you agree to when you install the app and during setup. This can include access to your devices storage or contacts, as well as less acceptable requests like SMS data.
Runtime permissions are those you can opt in/out of accepting while using the app. For instance, a photo editing app may request permission to access your gallery. Then, when you use the app, it requests access to your camera. These are easy enough to opt out of — simply deny the request if you don’t plan on using the feature.
Websites may also ask for permission to view your location. In many cases, retailers will ask if you want to store your credit card data (or your browser will). If you aren’t careful, you could be giving away your IP address, financial information, and browsing history unknowingly.
It’s best to deny these permissions and only store credit card and banking information in one secure location. In most cases you don’t need to allow location access, as you can choose a generic location (US, UK, Spain, etc.) for more relevant results.
Better yet, use a VPN and the website will receive a faux location so it doesn’t know where you really are. Private Internet Access has servers in 84+ countries, so you can easily find a server to spoof your location without revealing your true whereabouts.
Weed Out Your Apps
An easy way to help prevent a privacy breach is to reduce the amount of apps you have on your devices.
Always review an app before installing it to your device to gauge the potential for security breaches. You’ll discover that most apps request more permissions than popular search engines like Google.
Worse yet, individual apps can be patchy when it comes to security, leaving you open to Application Programming Interface (API) attacks. Common forms of API attacks include authentication hijacking, data exposure, and embedding malicious code into device software.
Using a browser instead of several apps further reduces the risk of unwanted downloads like trackers that some services include in apps. That said, you may find you can’t live without some apps. Here are some tips to help you decide what to keep and what to remove.
|Useful Tips for Removing Apps|
|Apps||Remove or Not?||Why?|
|System apps||⛔ No||These are required for your device’s operating system to run smoothly, removing them could cause issues with functionality.|
|Rarely used apps||✅ Yes||If you haven’t used an app in three or more days it isn’t that vital. It’s best to only keep the ones you use everyday and access the rest via browser.|
|Buggy apps||✅ Yes||Apps that freeze or restart frequently. These apps are unstable at the very least and could contain security vulnerabilities that make them an easy target for cybercriminals.|
|Preinstalled apps||❓ Maybe||Some devices come with games and chat apps like Hangouts preinstalled, these are usually safe to remove. However, if you aren’t sure it’s safe to remove a preinstalled app, leave it alone. It’s better to be safe than sorry.|
How to Stay Safe When Using Software and Services
Securing your online data on apps, sites, and browsers takes some diligence on your part, but you can use tools to make it easier. Alongside tools, you should take some basic steps to ensure your software and services aren’t putting your digital privacy at risk.
Update Software Regularly
Performing regular software updates on your devices and apps ensures you have the latest fixes and patches to repair security holes. These patches can include bug fixes, performance enhances, and other critical repairs.
Less security holes mean your friends and family are also safer because you won’t be sharing the latest tracker or virus via email. Plus, you get all the newest features in the process.
Review Policy Changes
You can skim through these changes, but make sure you at least give any policy changes the ‘once over’ before you agree to anything.
Minimizing Connected Accounts
Avoid linking games, services, and other accounts via single sign on gateways whenever possible. It may be an easy way to ensure your progress is saved, but it also creates opportunities for all companies involved to track your online activity.
For example, many gaming apps connect to your Facebook or Google accounts. Chances are you’ll start seeing ads for more games just like it on Facebook or ads for the games merchandise on Google. This isn’t a coincidence!
The services you connect share information to add to their database. Only connect services if you have to — that way you don’t need to wonder who’s sharing your activity. More worryingly, if the main account suffers a data breach, cybercriminals can also get data from any other accounts it’s connected to.
Reducing App Data Backup
Non-system related backup isn’t always critical. Despite this, most apps want you to save your app data to the cloud or connect the app to another to ‘track’ your progress.
The problem is that the data you back up to the cloud — including photos, messages, banking details, etc. — essentially sits around in a database. That leaves an opening for cybercriminals to steal your personal information.
Unfortunately, someone is always willing to exploit your personal information and sell it to the highest bidder. So, try to limit backup to one central account and secure your devices using biometrics or use two-factor authentication for added security.
Using protective software like a VPN also helps secure your data and network connections. PIA uses military-grade encryption to scramble your data and make it unreadable. This means no one can see what you’re doing online, so (unless you sign in or give it willingly) they can’t track you or log your data either. Get PIA VPN to minimize online tracking.
Use Advanced Authentication to Increase Your Online Security
Adding additional security barriers can help prevent identity theft, fraud, and other forms of privacy invasion. Let’s look at a few ways you can secure your existing devices and services.
🔒 Enable Two-Factor Authentication
When you use two-factor authentication methods, it’s harder for cybercriminals to access your account, as a password or biometric data is required each time you log in from a new location. That way, even if they manage to crack your email password, they’ll need to pass another security step to access the account.
Sensitive accounts like work emails and banking services are excellent places to use two-factor authentication. You can opt to have an authentication code or get a call with a secure PIN sent to your phone.
Some services like Google send a prompt to your email or phone asking if you attempted to log in from another location. At that point, you can approve or decline the login and change your password if you think it’s suspicious. If you aren’t comfortable using your personal email to receive a code or prompt, you can set up a burner email for this purpose.
Choose a unique PIN that doesn’t include easily accessible information like your birth date or parts of your address. Using repetitive strings of numbers (e.g., 1111, 0123, 0101, 8901) is also a bad idea if you want to deter cybercriminals.
When using a pattern to lock devices, avoid using square, L-shaped, or straight lines as patterns. These are common choices and may make it easier for someone to gain access to your device. A PIN is generally harder to crack than a pattern, because of so many variations.
🔒 Use Device Biometrics
When it comes to securing mobile devices and laptops that contain practically our whole lives, a little effort goes a long way.
If your device allows you to unlock it or sign in with biometrics like a fingerprint or facial recognition — use it.
While passwords, PINs, patterns, and SMS authentications are hard to crack, your fingerprint or unique facial structure is even more difficult to manipulate. That means if your device gets lost or stolen, it’s very difficult to access your data.
🔒 Secure Network Connections
Enable the password for your router when you set it up or ensure that the technician does. If you’re setting up the router, don’t stress, it’s fairly easy to add a password.
The default IP for routers is usually 192.168.0.1. You can typically find this information on an insert that came with the router or on a sticker somewhere on the router. The insert/sticker should also include the default username and password.
Once your router is set up, open your browser and type your router’s IP address into the URL and login using the default credentials. Now you can reset your username and password.
Use a mix of numbers and letters to create a strong password. This helps control third-party access to your network.
When you need secure access to a public network, like a hotspot, a VPN is one of the best ways to protect your online privacy.
PIA uses high-level encryption like AES 256-bit encryption which scrambles your data, making it impossible to read. When you connect to a secure server, it also changes your IP address to stop anyone seeing your location. As a result, it’s much harder to track your activity across the web, because no one can find you. Even if they could, they can’t see your traffic.
PIA also has a strict No Logs policy, so we never collect or store usage data. This means we never have anything to share with third parties.
|How to Use PIA on Your Devices|
You can also cover all your in-home tech by installing the VPN on your router. That way, you can hide your IP address and encrypt traffic on every device connected to your home network.
The Importance of Online Privacy
Keeping your online data private is critical at a time when everything from shopping to paying taxes can be done online. Whether it’s a cybercriminal, hacker, your ISP, or just someone being nosey, people are always tracking your activity.
Carefully selecting your apps, opting out of unnecessary permissions, and using two-factor authentication methods is a good start for increasing your online security. However, if you truly want to protect your online privacy a VPN is the best option.
Use Private Internet Access to scramble your data and stop hackers from accessing sensitive information. PIA masks your IP, which keeps your true location and data private. Even your ISP can’t track online activity because your traffic is routed through the VPN servers. No one can see what you do online — you’re virtually invisible.
What is digital/online privacy?
Digital or online privacy is the protection of all the information that you use while connected to the internet through a device. This includes authentication, IP address, browsing history, and other personal online data you send over the internet.
Ideally, you want as much anonymity and digital security as possible to protect your browsing, file sharing, messaging, devices, and sensitive accounts. That way, you have more control over who can view, collect, and share your online data.
Why is online privacy important?
Look at it this way — you wouldn’t want your bank to leave the vault door open and not lock the doors. When you actively protect your online privacy, you’re essentially leaving the doors wide open for cybercriminals, advertisers, and everyone else to walk right in.
That means your financial, personal, and general browsing information is available to anyone that can exploit a security hole or plant tracking software. PIA is the best way to protect your online privacy, as it encrypts your data and keeps it locked away from thieves.
What personal information am I giving away to apps and websites?
You may be surprised how much information you actually give away online. The most commonly collected information includes:
- Home address.
- IP address.
- Login/form data.
- Phone number.
- Social Security Number.
- Banking/financial information.
- Device data including IMEI.
- Biometric data.
Thankfully, you can easily hide this data by using the right VPN. PIA masks your IP address, so no one can see your real location, while the MACE feature and browser extension keep you safe from device fingerprinting. We also use military-grade encryption to send your traffic through a secure VPN tunnel, which keeps your data out of reach of data miners.
How can I protect my digital privacy?
Software and hardware solutions, alongside basic security practices, can help protect your digital privacy. Clearing your history, cookies, and cache data are simple practices that don’t take much time and, when performed regularly, can help prevent data buildup.
Software like VPNs, blockers, and firewalls are also excellent prevention against cyberattacks and malicious software downloads like trackers or viruses.
What’s the best way to protect my digital privacy?
The best way to keep yourself private online is with a trustworthy VPN like PIA. PIA has an adware, malware, and tracker blocker that stops threats in real-time at DNS level before they reach your device. This prevents websites from rerouting your traffic to malicious sites or using your DNS requests to track your online activity.
We also use unhackable 256-bit AES encryption to obscure your traffic. That means no one can find you online, so your private information really stays private.