How to Protect Your Online Privacy

Use These Tools

Make smart use of the tools available to keep your data safe.

Secure your accounts

Why: In the past decade, data breaches and password leaks have struck companies such as Equifax, Facebook, Home Depot, Marriott, Target, Yahoo, and countless others. If you have online accounts, hackers have likely leaked data from at least one of them. Want to know which of your accounts have been compromised? Search for your email address on Have I Been Pwned? to cross-reference your email address with hundreds of data breaches.

How: Everyone should use a password manager to generate and remember different, complex passwords for every account — this is the most important thing people can do to protect their privacy and security today. Wirecutter’s favorite password managers are LastPass and 1Password. Both can generate passwords, monitor accounts for security breaches, suggest changing weak passwords, and sync your passwords between your computer and phone. Password managers seem intimidating to set up, but once you’ve installed one you just need to browse the Internet as usual. As you log in to accounts, the password manager saves your passwords and suggests changing weak or duplicate passwords. Over the course of a couple of weeks, you end up with new passwords for most of your accounts. Take this time to also change the default passwords for any devices in your house — if your home router, smart light bulbs, or security cameras are still using “password” or “1234” as the password, change them.

Everyone should also use two-step authentication whenever possible for their online accounts. Most banks and major social networks provide this option. As the name suggests, two-step authentication requires two steps: entering your password and entering a number only you can access. For example, step one is logging in to Facebook with your username and password. In step two, Facebook sends a temporary code to you in a text message or, even better, through an app like Google Authenticator, and you enter that code to log in.

Protect your Web browsing

Why: Companies and websites track everything you do online. Every ad, social network button, and website collects information about your location, browsing habits, and more. The data collected reveals more about you than you might expect. You might think yourself clever for never tweeting your medical problems or sharing all your religious beliefs on Facebook, for instance, but chances are good that the websites you visit regularly provide all the data advertisers need to pinpoint the type of person you are. This is part of how targeted ads remain one of the Internet’s most unsettling innovations.

How: A browser extension like uBlock Origin blocks ads and the data they collect. The uBlock Origin extension also prevents malware from running in your browser and gives you an easy way to turn the ad blocking off when you want to support sites you know are secure. Combine uBlock with Privacy Badger, which blocks trackers, and ads won’t follow you around as much. To slow down stalker ads even more, disable interest-based ads from Apple, Facebook, Google, and Twitter. A lot of websites offer means to opt out of data collection, but you need to do so manually. Simple Opt Out has direct links to opt-out instructions for major sites like Netflix, Reddit, and more. Doing this won’t eliminate the problem completely, but it will significantly cut down the amount of data collected.

You should also install the HTTPS Everywhere extension. HTTPS Everywhere automatically directs you to the secure version of a site when the site supports that, making it difficult for an attacker — especially if you’re on public Wi-Fi at a coffee shop, airport, or hotel — to digitally eavesdrop on what you’re doing.

Some people may want to use a virtual private network (VPN), but it’s not necessary for everyone. If you frequently connect to public Wi-Fi, a VPN is useful because it adds a layer of security to your browsing when HTTPS isn’t available. It can also provide some privacy from your Internet service provider and help minimize tracking based on your IP address. But all your Internet activity still flows through the VPN provider’s servers, so in using a VPN you’re choosing to trust that company over your ISP not to store or sell your data. Make sure you understand the pros and cons first, but if you want a VPN, Wirecutter recommends IVPN.

1. Limit the personal information you share on social media

A smart way to help protect your privacy online? Don’t overshare on social media. Providing too much information on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram could make it easier for cybercriminals to obtain identifying information, which could allow them to steal your identity or to access your financial information.

For example, could an identity thief determine your high school mascot or your mother’s maiden name from digging through your Facebook account? This information is sometimes used as security questions to change passwords on financial accounts.

To protect your online privacy, ignore the “About Me” fields in your social media profiles. You don’t have to let people know what year or where you were born — which could make you an easier target for identity theft.

Explore different privacy settings, too. You might want to limit the people who can view your posts to those you’ve personally invited.

Create strong passwords, too, for your social media profiles to help prevent others from logging into them in your name. This means using a combination of at least 12 numbers, special characters, and upper- and lower-case letters.

2. Browse in private mode

If you don’t want your computer to save your browsing history, temporary internet files, or cookies, do your web surfing in private mode.

Web browsers offer their own versions of this form of privacy protection. In Chrome, it’s called Incognito Mode. Firefox calls its setting Private Browsing, and Internet Explorer uses the name InPrivate Browsing for its privacy feature. When you search with these modes turned on, others won’t be able to trace your browsing history from your computer.

But these private modes aren’t completely private. When you’re searching in incognito or private mode, your Internet Service Provider (ISP) can still see your browsing activity. If you are searching on a company computer, so can your employer. The websites you visit can also track you.

So, yes, incognito browsing does have certain benefits. But it’s far from the only tool available to help you maintain your privacy while online.

3. Use a different search engine

If you’re like many web surfers, you rely heavily on Google as your search engine. But you don’t have to. Privacy is one reason people prefer to use anonymous search engines.

This type of search engine doesn’t collect or share your search history or clicks. Anonymous search engines can also block ad trackers on the websites you visit.

Your Online Privacy in 2021 Is At A Greater Risk Than Ever

While it’s convenient to use your Facebook profile to create other online accounts, such behavior is doing little for your online privacy. It’s tantamount to running through the streets naked and hoping no one notices the enormous tattoo on your butt.

You may think you’re being cautious but every time you reuse your favorite cat’s name as your password, you’re basically handing over your data to the nearest hacker or tracker.

You may think you’re being security-conscious, using Incognito Mode and updating your antivirus regularly, but then off you go and share a photograph of your credit card on Facebook.

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