You’re careful about protecting yourself offline. You always lock the door at night. You take part in your local Neighborhood Watch program, and you store valuables and important documents in a safe deposit box at the bank. The same care must be taken to protect your online privacy, to avoid identity theft or being taken by an online scam.
By learning about all the hazards there are on the Internet, and what you can do to avoid them, you can go a long way toward protecting your online privacy. As security expert Tony Gambarcorta noted on the Too Embarrassed to Ask podcast, “The greatest threat is our own ignorance.”
It’s surprisingly easy to give out personal information on the Internet, even when you don’t mean to. We’re prompted for data almost daily: on social media sites, in emails, and on websites with forms requesting information they don’t necessarily need.
The hard truth is that our personal information – our names, email addresses, phone numbers, and social security numbers – are little more than commodities to certain online elements. Companies we do business with might have a legitimate use for some of it, and most try to protect the online privacy of their customers. But hackers can steal that data, and the more of it you allow online, the more vulnerable you are.
Identity thieves can use your information to make purchases, open new lines of credit, or file false tax returns.
Defamation of Character
Fraudulent activity associated with your name can be traced back to you, damaging your online reputation.
Cyber criminals with a lot of your personal information will send you threatening emails, in order to get money from you.
Phishing (and other) Scams
These come in unsolicited emails, in which the senders – who are criminals – try to get your login information to bank accounts, cloud storage, and so on. These always appear, falsely, to come from an official source, like a financial institution or a delivery company. [never give out any personal information to an unsolicited email from an unverified source.]
These scams often prey on our best intentions. Hurricane Harvey, in late summer 2017, spawned a new outbreak of scam charities.
These are, of course, just a few examples of what can happen when your online privacy is violated. Cyber criminals are endlessly creative, and their misdeeds can take many forms.
Tips to Protect Your Online Privacy
Don’t fill out your entire social media profile.
As we said before, the more personal information you put online, the more vulnerable you are. Social media profiles usually ask for a lot of information they don’t need – so don’t give it to them unless absolutely necessary. For existing accounts, you might even remove your name – many don’t really need it.
Use discretion in sharing your social security number.
Your bank or credit union has a legitimate need for your social security number, as does any other firm that has to report to the IRS. Few others do, so don’t give it out – not even the last four digits.
Turn on private browsing
This only works for physical access to your computer, but it’s worth mentioning. Private browsing deletes cookies, temporary Internet files, and your browsing history.
(Bear in mind that this only applies to data on your computer. The sites you visit can still collect any data you transmit. To surf the Internet with complete anonymity, use a Virtual Private Network or a web proxy.)
Never use the same password for more than one website
Use a password manager to remember all your different passwords, and also generate new, strong ones.
Use two-step authentication
With a strategy like this, you log into a site and then receive a special code, texted to your phone. Google, Apple ID, Dropbox, and other accounts make this authentication process available.
Monitor your name
With online monitoring tools, you are alerted anytime your name is mentioned on the Internet. There is a range of software for this, such as the tool offered by InternetReputation.com.
Lie when setting up password security questions
We usually advocate telling the truth, no matter what. But to protect your online privacy, it is sometimes necessary to obscure the truth, or even falsify stuff. When websites ask security questions like, “What is your mother’s maiden name?” just make up an answer. If you need help remembering these little white lies, most password manager software has an “accounts” feature to help you. See above.
One Step Ahead
In one of the great ironies of the cyber age, the freedom we have to surf the Internet is the very thing that makes us susceptible to a host of online threats.
Your online privacy is a precious commodity. Unfortunately, there will always be those ready to violate it for their own nefarious ends. They are endlessly creative, and usually one step ahead of security experts; some even like playing their games of cat-and-mouse. There is no strategy that will stop them dead in their tracks, but by taking some basic precautions, you can do a lot to protect yourself online.