Internet privacy: A guide to online privacy
Think no one’s spying as you surf online shoe shopping or as you research hotels for your next vacation trip? Then why is your browser suddenly showing ads from footwear sellers and hotel chains?
The truth is, plenty of ISPs and companies may be analyzing your online activity. Your web browser regularly collects data about the sites you visit, while search engines such as Google can track your browsing activity, too, sometimes providing that information to third parties. Even the Indian government could be reviewing your online searches.1
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For example, Google Transparency Report stated that from January to June 2020, Indian federal agencies and courts filed over 11,175 requests to Google to access the search engine’s user information.2 During the same period, the government filed over 35,560 requests to Facebook for user data.3
Does this mean you should toss your computer and never access the Internet again? That’s unrealistic. A better choice would be to apply security measures while surfing online. Here’s a look at why internet security is so important and some steps you can take to boost your privacy — from changing your search engine to signing up for a virtual private network to encrypting your emails.
Why is internet privacy so important?
It might seem annoying that advertisers immediately know when you’re searching for laundry soap, pants, or a new computer. But that’s not so dangerous, is it? Maybe not. But online snoops with malicious intentions could affect you in much more brutal ways. Cybercriminals could be the ones spying on you. If you’re not careful about shielding your online activity, they might gain access to your personal information, bank accounts, and credit cards, causing chaos in your financial or personal life.
It’s crucial, therefore, to take steps to protect your privacy online. As we spend more time online, it makes sense that the risk of someone accessing our personal information could increase.
Here are some of the important steps you can take to boost your privacy while scanning the web.
What are the risks of not guarding your privacy online?
While sharing your personal information with many organizations, you might think your identity will remain safe and secured. However, sometimes data breaches can occur where your data is exposed to unwanted strangers.
Compared to 2019, last year saw a 37% increase in Data Breaches throughout India. These breaches exposed more than 2 Crore consumer records containing sensitive, personally identifiable information.4
It's not guaranteed that identity thieves won’t ever steal your personal or financial information offline. But by guarding your privacy while online, you may decrease your likelihood of being a target.
Online privacy — recent trends
Cybercriminals continue to evolve their methods and tactics to access your personal information. Into the first half of 2020, Barracuda Networks reported that phishing attacks — in which thieves spread fake news relating to Covid-19 meant to appear as if they are coming from legitimate news sources but meant to trick recipients into providing personal and financial information — increased by 667%.
An excellent example of a recent phishing scam?
An International trader from Rajkot transferred 21 lakhs to a Chinese Firm in Guangdong. But when he asked the company, they told him that they hadn’t received the money.
Soon after filing a report, the victim found out that the company’s email was hacked and that he transferred the money to the bank account of a hacker based in Portugal.
Those who fall victim to these scams violate the No. 1 rule of online privacy: They provide private information online without confirming if the site is fake or not. Don’t do this. If you have to make online transactions or purchases, always check for the site’s legality and double-confirm the recipients' bank account numbers.
How to protect your privacy online: 13 steps to internet privacy
Here are some steps you can take to help protect your internet privacy, whether you go online from home or on the go.
1. Secure your Wi-Fi network and router
Take this step immediately after setting up a new router in your home or office: Change your username and password. Why? Many routers come with both a default username and password. And often, it’s “admin” for both of those. Replace those with usernames and passwords that are far harder for cyberthieves to guess. A complex and robust password will contain random letters, numbers, and symbols.
You’ll also need to set the right security option when enabling your router and Wi-Fi network. Usually, you can choose from three types: WEP, WPA, and WPA2. Choose WPA2 if you have that choice. This is currently the best encryption method available to secure your connection and will do the most to help keep hackers away.
2. Use a VPN
Another essential step in protecting your online privacy? Connect to the web through a secure virtual private network, better known as a VPN.
A VPN keeps the data you transmit and receive over your Wi-Fi connection private. VPN providers typically offer several servers to route your internet traffic. When you search online, your computer will connect to this server before connecting to the web. This keeps your browsing private. No-log VPN services generally do not collect, or “log,” any information transmitted through the network. While using a VPN, not even your Internet Service Provider will be able to track your online activity.
Using a VPN is especially important when you’re using public Wi-Fi. Taking this step will make it more challenging for online thieves to access your passwords or steal the personal/ financial information you enter when accessing accounts or making purchases.
Finding a VPN isn’t difficult. There are plenty out there. Selecting the most secure VPN provider? That’s more of a challenge. It’s best to check out online reviews and recommendations from tech sites.
Some general guidance? Consider Norton Antivirus Software if you want absolute protection of your online data and complete anonymity from hackers who are likely to intercept your private info while surfing on a public network.5
3. Use browsers that don’t track your search history
It’s easy to rely on popular browsers such as Google Chrome, Internet Explorer, and Firefox to search the web. the thing is, these browsers track your search history. Even searching in incognito or private modes won’t keep your searches completely anonymous. Your employer, ISP, and the individual websites you visit can still track your browsing activity.
Some browsers do keep your online activity private, Tor Browser being the most famous of them.
4. Use a screen lock to help protect your devices
What if someone stole your phone or laptop? What personal information could they access? The thought is a frightening one. But you can ease some of your fear by password-protecting your devices.
If you enable this, your device’s screen will be locked when you turn it on. You’ll need to enter a password, a code, or swipe a specific pattern every time you turn on your laptop, smartphone, or tablet. Those who don’t have access to these codes, patterns, or passwords won’t be able to access your device.
Yes, this does mean that logging onto your device will take more effort. But protecting your widgets in this way and all the data you store on them, will offer more protection should they be lost or stolen.
To screen-lock your devices, click on Settings and look for the security option. You can change and set your screen-lock procedure here.
5. Clear your browser’s search history
Your web browser will store your searching history indefinitely. This could be embarrassing depending on what sites you’ve visited and who’s peeking at your search history. Even worse, though, is if someone gains access to your computer, smartphone, or tablet, views your search history, and decides to use it against you somehow.
Fortunately, deleting your search history is a simple step. You can usually erase your history by visiting the history section on your browser. You’ll then find an option for clearing your search history or browsing history. Click on that choice to erase your digital footprints.
Remember, though, that your browser will save your search history anew as you continue surfing the Internet. Keep erasing that history if you want to remain private.
6. Turn off “Location Services” on your devices
Many of the apps on your phone or tablet will track your location. This is just another example of how our favourite devices can intrude upon our privacy. Apps can use or sell this information to make us better targets for advertisers.
You can regain your privacy, though, by turning off the “Location Services” options on your devices.
If you’re using an iPhone, you can do this by opening your Settings, tapping on “Privacy,” and selecting “Location Services.” If you turn “Location Services” off, all of your apps will stop tracking you.
You might want to be a bit more selective, though. You can also scroll down a list of all your apps and set their tracking services individually. You have the choice to allow apps to track your location always, only while using them, or never.
For most apps, you can set “never.” For some, such as Google Maps or Uber, you might want to allow location tracking only when using them.
On an Android phone, again open your Settings. Then tap “Advanced.” Once the new screen appears, tap “App permissions” and select “Location.” You’ll now see a list of apps that are tracking your location. You can turn location tracking on or off for each app.
7. Avoid torrent or piracy web sites
It can be tempting: You want to watch your favourite movie or TV show. Or maybe you want to download a specific song or book. You know you can find it from a piracy or torrent site, which will allow you to download your entertainment for free.
Stealing entertainment is, of course, illegal. But downloading from torrent and piracy sites can also infect your computer with malware — tainted software that cybercriminals can use to access your computer and steal your personal information.
In 2018, Carnegie Mellon University in Pennsylvania released a paper stating that the more time users spend on piracy sites, the more likely they will suffer a malware attack. According to the report, every time users doubled their time spent on these sites, malware infection in their computers increased by 20%.
The lesson is clear: Don’t download from torrent or piracy sites if you value your online security.
8. Install an antivirus security suite
You might think you don’t need to install antivirus software if you are careful online. If you don’t visit piracy websites, fall for phishing emails, or download suspicious files, you don’t need security software, right?
Wrong. Consider antivirus your device’s last line of defense. Even if you practice safe computing, you might make a mistake and accidentally click on a suspicious link in an email or visit a website riddled with malware. Your security software increases the odds that malware won’t sneak onto your device.
You can rely on Norton Antivirus for your device’s shielding from any kind of spyware attack. It identifies and blocks links/emails that might be malicious or harmful.6
9. Rethink your social media presence
We get it; you keep up with your friends and family members through Facebook and other social networking sites. But regularly posting to any sharing platform could compromise your privacy.
Maybe you’re up for a new job. Do you want those inappropriate jokes you posted six years ago popping up when potential employers search your name? What if your ex is trying to track you down even though you’re happily married? It’s far easier for that former flame to find you if you post personal information such as your city or employer or places you frequent on social media networks.
If you can’t break free from social media sharing, be mindful about what you post. Try not to fill your profiles with personal pictures or information. And tweak your privacy settings so that only those you invite can visit your networking profiles.
10. Empty cached files and images
Your browser caches or stores files and images that you access while online. If you’d instead want this information to be hidden from prying eyes, you can clear your browser’s cache without any difficulty.
For instance,, with the Google Chrome browser, you can click on the three-dot menu icon in the upper-right-hand corner of your screen. Then you can click on the “History” option to bring up a small screen showing sites you’ve visited recently. Click again on the word “History,” which will be at the top of this small box. Then click the “Clear browsing data” option. This will erase your history and remove any cached images and files.
For Internet Explorer, select the Gear icon on the upper-left-hand side of your browser. Then select “Internet Options.” You can then click the “Delete” button to remove history and cached images and files. You can also click on a box that will force Internet Explorer to delete your browsing history and cached files every time you exit your browser.
For Firefox, click the hamburger icon (which looks like it ≡) atop your browser and select “Options” and “Privacy & Security.” You can then delete your history and cached files.
11. Use caution when connecting to public Wi-Fi
The free Wi-Fi offered at coffee shops, public libraries, airports, and hotels are convenience. It allows us to get our work done on the go. But public Wi-Fi also comes with risks and, if you’re connecting to such a system, you need to be cautious.
The big problem with public Wi-Fi is that it can be easy for prying eyes to access any information you send and receive online.
When you’re accessing public Wi-Fi, avoid doing anything that involves sensitive information, like entering your bank account password or credit card information. And never send personal information in email messages. If you do, strangers might be able to intercept that information quickly.
12. HTTPS everywhere
Need to connect to your bank, credit union, or credit card provider? Make sure to check the web address at the top of your browser. If it doesn’t start with “HTTPS,” don’t log in.
The “HTTPS” in front of a web address means that a website is secure and uses encrypted data. If a site’s address starts with “HTTP” instead — no “s” — that means the site is not secure. It could be easier for hackers to access and steal personal information or track your online activity if you visit unsecured sites.
The good news is that HTTPS protocol is now standard. The web addresses of your bank, credit card provider; and other financial institutions should all start with it. If you log onto your bank and you don’t see ”HTTPS”? Do not open your account, and do not use the site to pay bills or transfer money.
13. Opt out of personalized ads from Google
It can be unsettling: You’re planning a Goa trip, so you spend an hour online searching hotels, restaurants, and museums. Suddenly, ads from various airlines show up on your home screen, promising reduced flights to the city.
This is an example of personalized ads, and they’re a reminder of just how closely ad networks, such as the major one run by Google, track your online activity.
If you’d like a bit more privacy, you can instruct Google to stop displaying personalized ads. If you do this, you’ll still see ads when browsing online, but they won’t be related to anything in your search history.
The easiest way to do this is through your Google account. Once you’re online and your browser is open, log onto https://myaccount.google.com/. This should pull up your Google account page. If you’re not logged in, you might have to enter your password first.
Look for the “Personal Info & Privacy” box. Then click on “Ads Settings” in that box. When the “Ads Settings” box opens, click on the link for “Manage Ads Settings.” This will bring up the “Ads Personalization” box. Click the toggle bar in the upper-right-hand corner, turning it from “ON” to “OFF.”
This will bring up one more popup box, this one asking if you really want to turn off personalized ads. If you do, click the “TURN OFF” option at the bottom right-hand corner. Once you do this, Google will no longer send you personalized ads.
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