Watch what you post
There is a lot of talk about how social networks, search engines and even seemingly innocuous websites can invade our privacy, but the biggest risk to our privacy is what we post ourselves. Sure, you should get to know the privacy settings of the services you use, but you should also be aware that anything you post online can be copied and pasted so, if it's really really embarrassing or really a secret, don't post it online, even if you have the tightest possible privacy settings.
Keep hackers at bay
There is also the possibility of unauthorized access. If hackers get their hands on your usernames and passwords or figure out how to break into one of your accounts, then all privacy bets are off. And even if you practice great security, there is always a chance of a data breach at some company or agency with access to your data. It's happened to millions after intrusions into company, government and university sites. For example, in April, 2011 Sony's servers suffered a major data breach that jepordized personal information from 77 million customers.
Still, there are things you can do to protect yourself:
- Use strong passwords, change them periodically and don't use the same password for multiple accounts. Here is are some helpful password tips from ConnectSafely.
- Check your online credit and bank accounts frequently to look for fraudulent activity and report it immediately. In most cases you're not liable. Check all three of your credit reports (for free) at least once a year.
- Use security software and keep it and your operating system and applications up-to-date.
- Use the privacy tools associated with your social networks but be aware that anything can be copied and forwarded. Here are links to privacy settings on Facebook, Google+ and Twitter*
- Use encryption setting with your WiFi wireless networks. Don't enter highly confidential information when connected to a public network.
- Only provide personal or financial information to websites you know and trust. Never enter passwords on sites you're not sure about, especially if you get an email asking you to do so.
- Know how to use your browser's private or "ingonito" mode and how to erase the history from your browser.
How Tracking cookies often work:
- You visit a website that has an ad on it that's placed by one of the advertising networks. The ad may appear on the site you're visiting, but it's actually being delivered from a server owned by the advertising network.
- The network then puts a cookie on your machine that records the ad that was shown and the site you visited.
- Then you visit another site that displays another ad from the same ad network and the cookie is updated with information about the current and current site.
- Over a period of time the network can get a pretty good idea of sites in its network that you've visited.
The good thing about tracking cookies is that they help give you ads you're more likely to be interested in. If you've been shopping for, let's say, sporting equipment, you'll see a lot more sporting equipment ads which might be a good thing if you're always on the prowl for new equipment. Also, you're less likely to see ads for products or services that don't interest you.
Still, it can be creepy to be followed around and, even though the major advertising networks claim they don't use this information to personally identify you, the fact is that the data is being stored and could, at least in theory, be used to identify you.
Removing or opting out of tracking cookies
Many security products can be used to remove tracking cookies and the major browsers also have tools to remove them.
DoubleClick, which is owned by Google, offers instructions on how to opt out of cookies. Here are instructions for deleting stored cookies in Microsoft Internet Explorer, Mozilla Firefox and Google Chrome.
All the browser companies have agreed to include a "do not track" feature in future browsers, but tracking will be the default setting unless you change it. Mozilla Firefox, the first to implement this feature, has posted instructions on how to use it.
Your cell phone knows almost exactly where you are via its GPS antenna and its ability to recognize nearby WiFi hotspots. And, an increasing number of mobile phone apps are "location-aware," which means that they are capable of tracking your location. Be sure to only use location-aware apps that you trust and be very careful how you configure them. Some apps are designed to share you location with friends or via social networks or Twitter. Use them carefully and only share your location with people you trust. Review your settings occasionally to make sure you're still comfortable with the people you're sharing your location with and be careful before you use your phone to "check-in" to a location.
Don't overlook the "obvious"
There are certain privacy traps that are so low-tech that we're likely to forget about them. These include:
- Watch what you say on your phone while you're in public -- people around you might be listening
- Be aware of others viewing your screen. It doesn't take a hack to know what you're typing or reading if someone is behind you or near you. If you do look at your create confidential documents, consider getting a privacy screen for your laptop.
- And, for the ultimate in low-tech privacy protection, shred your old financial records and other confidential documents before throwing them in the trash or recycling bin.
*Note about Twitter "privacy": Although it's possible to configure your Twitter account so that you have to approve anyone who follows you, that's not how the service usually works. Think of Twitter as a public forum where everything you post can be seen by anyone.