How To Get Privacy Online

Terry Johnson
Jul 1 · 7 min read

How To Get Privacy Online

Tech companies used to be the shining examples of freedom and success. We looked up to tech CEO’s. They had paved the way to better connections between friends, great new services, and free access to services online. Everyone loved it.

Since then, we’ve heard more and more about privacy violations, private data sold to third parties, and various ways that our favorite tech companies use our own data in ways that we didn’t expect. The more we learn, the less benign the tech companies get. If you want to get your privacy back, there are ways to opt out of the surveillance system. Here’s how to get privacy online.

The Privacy Problem

Not long ago, the internet was a free, unexplored territory. It was mostly tech geeks, creating services just for fun, who provided content for free. As any technology matures, companies figure out how to make money. But they couldn’t shake the prevailing attitude that everything on the internet should be free.

Eventually, they figured out one rule: If you can’t sell your product, you can sell user data. In an article published by The Harvard Gazette, cyber security expert, Bruce Schneier says:

“Surveillance is the business model of the internet. Everyone is under constant surveillance by many companies, ranging from social networks like Facebook to cellphone providers. This data is collected, compiled, analyzed, and used to try to sell us stuff. Personalized advertising is how these companies make money, and is why so much of the internet is free to users. We’re the product, not the customer.”

Who Can See Your Data

Just about any website or service will track you by various means. But here are the worst privacy offenders.

  • Search engines: Search engines use your search history to compile a profile so they can sell targeted ads to you.
  • Free online services: Just about anything that’s free uses your data to make money, including email, calendar, and map services.
  • Social media: Social media sites like Facebook and Twitter have access to detailed information about your interests and they use it to sell ads.
  • Home smart hubs: Home smart hubs, like the Amazon echo, are always listening
  • Phone and phone apps: Phone apps use data, like location services, to sell ads. Some people even think they’re listening in on your conversations.
  • Internet service providers (ISP): ISP’s for home and mobile data monitor all your traffic going through their servers.
  • Governments: Governments monitor your traffic to “keep us safe.”

Do most people even care?

The biggest problem, though, isn’t what the tech companies do. It’s that most people don’t care. We have gotten used to the idea that surveillance is the price of free services online. Most, especially young people, are ok with that. Without pressure from consumers, tech companies won’t back off.

How to get privacy online

If tech companies won’t pull back on their surveillance, what can a regular person do to protect her privacy? Here are some simple steps you can do to keep your data private.

Simple steps

Not every trick involves high-tech solutions. There are a few simple ways that even technologically challenged people can handle:

  1. Don’t post things online or in social media with identifiable information. Refrain from tagging yourself in photos on social media, especially.
  2. Use search engines that don’t track your data.
  3. Turn off location services on your phone. Lots of apps want to tap into your location services, but they can’t unless you let them.
  4. Don’t use services like gmail, Google calendar, and cloud drives.
  5. Protect yourself from cookies by deleting them from your browser.

Social media

Social media companies have more access to our data than most other companies, because we put our lives on them. We upload photos and share articles so they can keep track of every aspect of our lives. Sometimes they know us better than we know ourselves. Here are some simple ways to keep your social media accounts private. If you want to know more, check out this article from the University of Texas: Austin Center for Identity.

Facebook

Facebook has several privacy settings that can keep your info secret from other people. To use Facebook with maximum privacy, you need to do a few things:

  • Edit your privacy settings to be as strict as possible.
  • Don’t tag your photos when you upload them.
  • Review all posts that others make about you.
  • Manage your ad preferences.
  • Remove any apps from your account.
  • Turn on encrypted notifications emails.

Twitter

Twitter shares only what you allow it to share. To keep your private info private, set up your account to make all your tweets private. You can do this by going to “settings” and then “security and privacy.” Also, don’t include your location in your tweets or tag people when you upload photos.

Instagram

Instagram sets your account to “public” by default, so everyone can see everything you do. To keep your information safe, make your photo feed private by going to “edit your profile” and selecting “posts are private.” Also, turn off the location setting for your photos.

Pinterest

Pinterest has some of the easiest privacy settings. Here are some suggestions:

  • Switch search privacy to “no” under settings.
  • Use a pseudonym.
  • Use secret boards only visible to select users.
  • Don’t list your real location in your profile.

Youtube

We don’t normally think about Youtube as social media, but it is. When you upload a video, people who have subscribed to your channel can see it, and others can comment on them. You share personal information through your videos, too. Youtube has some complicated privacy settings, but they are all in your account settings. Here are some things to do.

  • Check out the privacy settings in your account settings.
  • Determine what you want to share with others.
  • Turn off interest based ads.
  • Edit your interest settings.
  • Delete any connected account information

Even with every privacy setting arranged for maximum privacy, you should remember that nothing on the internet is really private. Anything you post online, store in a cloud drive, or email can end up in public hands. If you really want to be private, maximizing your privacy settings isn’t enough.

How to get privacy online: Virtual private networks

The above options only deal with your accounts and activity you do through a website. It doesn’t cover what happens between your computer and the sites you visit. Your traffic from the computer to the ISP can be monitored, too.

Nefarious people can tap into the traffic from your computer to the ISP, especially if you’re using public WiFi. ISP’s also track your browsing information, and they can keep a complete list of all your browsing history. If your ISP decides to share that, or a government entity shows up with a warrant, there’s nothing you can do to stop it.

The only way to protect your private data is to use a virtual private network (VPN). A VPN encrypts the traffic from your computer to your ISP, so people can’t tap into it. If they try, all they get is encrypted information.

Once the traffic hits your ISP, they only see the VPN server. That’s because all your browsing traffic goes through the VPN server to the rest of the internet. It doesn’t matter what sites you visit, the ISP only records traffic to the VPN.

Of course, you still have to manage privacy through a VPN, because each service has different levels of privacy settings. Select a VPN that has a “no logging” policy and doesn’t use ads.

Internet Privacy

Internet privacy is a balance between the free services you want and keeping your data private. If you manage your settings and monitor your cookies, you can keep your information safe from the sites you visit. But if you really want privacy, the only way to get it is through a VPN.

Terry Johnson

Written by

Terry is the pen name for a writer who lives in Chicago. He writes about technology, especially personal privacy and security