Tech Tip Thursday: Protecting Your Online Privacy

Cyber Security

We’ve talked a lot in previous posts about some of the tools and habits you need to keep yourself safe on the internet. We’ve told you how to avoid malware, what to do if you get malware, how to keep yourself safe from phishing emails and phone scams. Most recently, we talked about creating, managing, and recovering passwords. Today, we’re going to talk about some basic tools and practices you can use to protect your privacy online.

Software Updates

One thing that we touched on when we talked about protecting yourself from malware was the importance of keeping your software updated. That tip bears repeating here. By keeping your web browser updated to the most recent version, you make sure that you’re getting the latest its developers have to offer in terms of built-in privacy protection. For example, in the aftermath of Facebook’s recent privacy scandal, Mozilla updated the Firefox browser so that certain privacy protection features are now turned on by default. Keeping your browser updated is a simple and remarkably effective way to protect yourself online.

Browser Extensions

In addition to built-in privacy protections, there are several browser extensions you can download that will help keep your information safe. If you’re not familiar with them, extensions are small modifications that can be made to a browser to change certain aspects of the way it behaves. They can do all sorts of things, from making YouTube videos easier to watch to helping you learn a language, but there are several that can protect your privacy and provide security as you browse the web.

The main security related functions that browser extensions can take care of are ad blocking, tracker blocking, and connection security. Ad blockers like uBlock Origin, AdBlock Plus, and others, do pretty much what it sounds like they do: they keep the advertisements on a web page from loading along with the rest of the page, so that any ads that might behave maliciously never get the chance. They also speed up your browsing experience, since websites load faster without ads than they do with ads.

Tracker blocking extensions prevent the placement of tracking cookies in your browser. Browser cookies are tiny little bits of data that websites use to keep track of your visits. A lot of these cookies are legitimate and not a major concern – if you’ve ever clicked “Remember Me” or “Keep Me Logged In” when you logged into a website, a cookie was placed in your browser so that the next time you visit, the site will recognize you as logged in. Tracking cookies, though, are used to follow your activity from website to website. Have you ever shopped for something online and then seen an ad for the same product on another site later? That’s a tracking cookie at work. Imagine going to the mall and getting a sticker for every store you go in, so that the next store you visit can see where you’ve been. Tracking blockers like Privacy Badger and Disconnect prevent sites from placing tracking cookies in your browser.

HTTPS Everywhere is an extension that increases the security your connection to the websites you visit by forcing them to use an HTTPS connection instead of a standard HTTP connection as much as possible. With an HTTPS connection, the traffic between your computer and the website you’re visiting is encrypted, which protects against certain kinds of hacking and snooping.

Social Media

Privacy on social media has been in the news a lot lately, and you might be among the many people worrying about how to keep your information safe from prying eyes. The simplest way to do that is by controlling who has the ability to view your profiles. Social media sites like Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook all offer privacy settings that can adjust how much of your profile, posts, photos, and other activities are publicly visible. By locking down these settings, you can prevent random people from having access to information about you that you’d rather keep private.

Another way to protect yourself on social media – particularly on Facebook – is to be careful in who you’re friends with. People you don’t know personally, or don’t know well, might not always be trustworthy with the information you post on social media. You should also be mindful about what you post, especially if you choose to leave your profile public. If you’d rather strangers not know where your kids go to school or know about the big, fancy, new TV you just bought, then posting about those things on social media might not be the best idea.

Finally, you should generally avoid using your social media credentials to sign into other sights. Both Google and Facebook offer what they call single sign-on services, where you can use your Google account or your Facebook account to sign into completely unrelated websites. While this feature is undeniably convenient, it also allows Google and Facebook to have more information than you might be comfortable with about your online activities.

How to Be Safe on Public WiFi

While public wifi networks are a great convenience when you need them, they can also be a security risk, especially if they’re open (i.e., don’t require a password to access). When you browse the internet on a public wifi network, you run a risk of your web traffic being monitored or intercepted by hackers who are using the same network. While the odds of this happening at your local Starbucks or public library are, realistically, pretty low, it is still a concern that you should be aware of. You should especially avoid engaging in any sensitive activities like logging into your banking website.

VPN Services

Now, at this point it’s worth taking a moment to briefly discuss VPNs. With recent public debates about things like net neutrality and whether internet service providers should be allowed to monitor your internet use, a lot of people have been talking about VPNs. A lot could be said about these services, but the short version is that a VPN (Virtual Private Network) is a service that masks your internet traffic by routing it through a different server. In effect, when you use a VPN, the service connects your computer directly to a server owned by the VPN service you’re using (popular services include Private Internet Access, TunnelBear, and NordVPN). The effect of this is to hide your internet traffic from monitoring. For example, if you connect to a VPN while on your home network, your internet service provider can no longer see where you go, they can only see the amount of data you use. They also protect you from the kind of snooping that can happen on unsecured public wifi networks.

VPN services aren’t for everyone – their setup can sometimes get a little technical, and all the best ones require a paid subscription – but they’re an excellent way to protect your internet activity from certain kinds of snooping.

Secure Your Home WiFi

Of all the different ways to keep your information safe from prying eyes, securing your home wireless network might be the easiest, since there’s a fairly good chance it’s already been done for you. These days the wifi equipment you get from your internet service provider (AT&T, Spectrum, etc.) already comes with basic security enabled. Basically, if your friends have to ask for your wifi password when you come over, you’re already good. If not – if your wifi network is open so that anyone can access it, then you need to secure it, otherwise it’s no safer than the public networks we talked about above. If you bought your wifi router at a store, then your user’s manual will have instructions on how to enable security on it. All you have to do is login to the router from a computer on the network with the username and password in your router’s documentation. From there you can change the username, the password, and even the network name, if you feel like it.

At Phone Medics + PC, we know how important the safety and security of your online life is, that’s why we want to make sure you have the tools and the knowledge to protect yourself and your information.