Why is Online Privacy Important? A Starter’s Guide to Protecting Yourself on the Internet

Published on August 10, 2020

An astounding 70% of American adults believe their personal data is less secure today than it was five years ago. According to the Pew Research Center, around 63% of these people admit to understanding little to nothing about the laws and regulations that exist to protect their internet data privacy.

Internet privacy, also referred to as online privacy or digital privacy, is the amount of your personal information that remains private when you go online. You have the right for your sensitive data and information to stay private, but the boundaries of what information is acceptable for companies and governments to track keep shifting. 

How much information can be obtained about a person through their digital footprint is constantly changing, and it’s up to consumers to stay up-to-date on internet privacy regulations and how they can protect themselves. Here’s what you need to know.

The Importance of Online Privacy

If you think the information collected can’t tell much about you, think again. In some situations, computer algorithms can use your search history and buying information to find out more than you know about yourself. In one alarming example that made headlines, Target knew a teen girl was pregnant before she had even told her family.

Your personal information can be turned into profits for businesses, so they have an interest in obtaining as much information about you as possible. 

Companies pay attention to what websites you visit, which items you buy or consider buying, and can tell how long you linger on particular sections of sites. If you like your advertisements relevant to your interests, this is a positive. However, the company may also use this information for less innocent reasons, or your personal information can be stolen from companies by cybercriminals.

In 2018, nearly half of all U.S. companies were victims of a data breach. And that’s not the only way your personal information can get into the wrong hands. You may provide information to a company you trust in good faith, but in many situations it’s completely legal for them to sell your data to third parties.

This is why it’s so important for consumers to understand internet privacy. You can’t always trust companies to act in your best interest or keep your data safe. 

Today’s Top Internet Privacy Issues

There are benefits to providing some of our information to companies. For example, when online forms, websites, and passwords autofill, it saves us time and is convenient. But for that convenience, what are we sacrificing? What risks are we making ourselves vulnerable to?

Identity Fraud

It’s a common trope in clone movies to have a character and his clone need to try and convince another character he is the “real” one. It’s a struggle because they look exactly alike. In real life, this can be an issue when somebody commits identity theft. Not only is it possible for someone to drain your financial accounts, but it then makes it more challenging for you to prove who you are when applying for a passport, home loan, and more.

Anybody with a social security number can be a victim of identity fraud, but the very young and very old are targeted most often. Approximately 20% of victims experience identity fraud more than once.

Some common ways people can fall prey to identify fraud is through pharming and phishing. Pharming refers to when hackers sneakily redirect you from a safe website to a different IP address where you provide your information, thinking you’re still on the safe site. Phishing happens when hackers send you a fake email, or other form of communication, that tricks you into clicking a harmful link or opening an attachment. 

Social Media Issues

Social media apps are often “free” in a monetary sense, but the companies can make substantial money from tracking your browsing history and selling it to people who show you targeted advertisements. A 2017 Pew Research Center survey showed only 9% of social media users feel “very confident” social media companies protect their data, and for good reasons — these companies largely don’t.

In July 2020, dozens of America’s most famous people, such as Elon Musk and Bill Gates, were hacked on Twitter. Their accounts all posted the same message telling followers that if they sent them Bitcoin, as a charitable act, they would send the follower twice as much in return. This is just one recent example of a high-profile social media data breach.

Search Tracking & Cookies

As you browse the internet, search engines log what you have been looking at and what sites you visit following your search. If your search engine provider also makes the browser, they have your browsing history even if you didn’t first search for a site. 

Data that search engines collect includes:

  • Search history
  • IP Addresses
  • Click-through history
  • Cookies

Cookies are the code that tells a website your browsing history. They remember information for you, such as usernames, passwords, identification information, language settings, and more. 

This makes revisiting websites easier for you. However, sometimes third-party ads use information from your browsing history to decide which ads to show you. Some people don’t mind targeted ads, but others consider this amount of stored consumer data to be a violation of privacy.

Location-tracking Apps

It makes sense for transportation apps, such as Uber or Lyft, to need locations permissions. The same is true for any type of delivery or GPS app. Other apps, such as Instagram and Snapchat, ask to track where you are so you tag locations in your photos or let friends know where you are.

However, you may be surprised just how many apps have permission to know your location, whether or not the app is currently being used. These apps not only know where you are at any given moment, but your patterns as well.

The times you’re usually away from home and what stops you’re likely to make on a trip are all tracked. It’s easy to see how this information is risky if accessed by somebody with ill intent.

How to Protect Your Privacy Online

Fortunately, consumers often have more control over their digital footprint than they think. These strategies can restrict how much personal data of yours is available online.

Secure Your Passwords

Yes, it’s annoying to have to type long, complicated passwords, but it helps keep your information safe. Try to make your passwords a minimum of eight characters, using a combination of upper and lowercase numbers, symbols, and numbers. Avoid using identifiable information, such as your house or phone number. Don’t use the same password for all websites and apps. Alternatively, you can use a password manager — there are many available that offer different features and different price points.

For extra security, consider using two-factor authentication (2FA). 2FA is very secure because it requires you to have access to at least two of your devices (such as both your laptop and phone) to get into an account. A standard order of operations for 2FA is you type in your username and password on a website on your laptop, then you are texted a code to your phone, and you type that code into the website.

Review Privacy Policies

It’s tempting to scroll down and pretend to have read privacy policies and click “accept” without actually reading them. However, reading them can inform you of what you’re allowing to be shared and sometimes they give you ways to stop the spread of your information. 

For example, when you sign up for a Target debit or credit card, you have to allow the company to track your information. However, you have the choice of whether or not you will let non-affiliates market to you. The default is that Target will sell your information to third-parties to advertise to you. However, people who read the privacy policies see a phone number they can call within a month to opt out.

Adjust Privacy Settings

Almost all apps let you adjust your privacy settings to a certain extent. Always choose to share as little data as possible and turn off unnecessary location services and access to your camera. Set as many settings as possible to private or at least to only share with your friends and family. Often settings are automatically set to be public, but are easily changeable to private. 

Delete Old Data & Update Operating Systems

Take some time to go through your phone and delete apps you never use anymore. Not only will it reduce clutter, but it’ll take away those apps’ permissions. You can also adjust your web browser settings to only store cookies and history for a designated length of time. 

Keep your operating systems current. Each update often fixes security flaws that were discovered on older operating systems. Current software keeps you safer.

Consumers Need to Take Online Privacy Seriously

Online privacy is essential. Protect yourself by using secure passwords, adjusting privacy settings, and more.

Your online privacy is your responsibility, but it is also the responsibility of companies and the government. Pay attention to news articles about the current state of internet privacy and share them with others. If you think online privacy isn’t secure enough, make your voice heard.

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