Full disclosure or totally incognito? When and why to control your internet privacy
Internet privacy is an ever-changing concept. Some people view privacy on the internet as protection over their personal information, while others think of it as a state of total anonymity online. Many companies and websites view internet privacy even more differently — as a privilege consumers have to fight for.
One thing, however, is clear: internet privacy isn’t granted automatically. If you want control over your personal information in the digital sphere, you have to take action. Websites use tracking technology to monitor your digital behavior, retrieving data on everything from your location to your personal interests. They can then use this data for profit, either by sending you targeted ads or selling your information to other companies.
Of course, data tracking isn’t necessarily a bad thing — you may want to give certain companies access to your data to make your online experiences more convenient. According to a 2018 survey from Akamai Research, 35% of consumers are fine with receiving tailored ads as long as companies protect their data and use it responsibly.
But giving up your data should always be a choice, not an expectation. Until that changes on a larger scale, though, there are strategies you can use to help preserve your privacy on the internet, including changing your app permissions and tweaking your social media privacy settings.
Some people also think browsing the web using incognito mode (or private mode) can improve your level of privacy. And though private mode is helpful in certain scenarios, it isn’t a foolproof defense against data tracking.
Does incognito mode help protect your internet privacy?
Incognito mode is a browser function that allows you to surf the web more privately. When you open a new window or tab in incognito mode, none of your information gets saved. Your browser doesn’t store cookies, which contain personal details and data on your preferences, nor does it record the sites you visit in your history or cache. This effectively gives you a blank slate each time you go online.
The main appeal of incognito mode is that it hides your browsing history from anyone using your computer, which makes it a helpful tool for maintaining your internet privacy during certain activities. Think: checking your email on a cafe computer or purchasing a gift for someone in your family.
While incognito mode can provide a degree of anonymity, it isn’t a perfect privacy solution. Websites and internet service providers may not have access to your cookies in incognito mode, but they can still gather information on your browser type, operating system, screen resolution, and unique plug-ins. They can use these details to fingerprint your device and identify your IP address, then send any data they receive back to their servers.
Unfortunately, most consumers don’t know the constraints of incognito mode. According to a 2018 study from the University of Chicago, many people believe it offers more protections than it actually does. For example, 56.3% of consumers thought their search queries wouldn’t be saved when using Google in private mode. But that isn’t true — private mode prevents your search history from being saved on your local browser, but Google can still see your searches if you’re logged in.
When should you control your internet privacy?
You should have the ability to control your internet privacy at all times. After all, privacy is a personal choice. Depending on your mood and online activities, you may prefer to be completely invisible online, or you might feel comfortable being seen and heard.
You may want to subscribe to email updates from the nonprofit organization you contribute to, for example, or allow other people to follow your creative pursuits. Giving companies access to your data can be especially helpful if you know you’ll receive something in return.
According to Acxiom’s 2018 data privacy survey, 56% of consumers are willing to share their personal email address in exchange for exclusive offers from their favorite brands. Another 32% are willing to share data about their personal interests and hobbies to receive relevant information from sellers.
On the other hand, if the targeted ads you receive feel intrusive, you might want to limit your visibility online or prevent companies from accessing certain data. In general, it’s smart to reduce the amount of sensitive personal information you share in case of a data breach. The 2019 Thales Data Threat Report found that data breaches are on the rise; 36% of U.S. consumers had a breach in 2018, compared to 26% in 2017.
Fortunately, there are concrete steps you can take to better protect your internet privacy:
Change your social media privacy settings
Review your app permissions
Update your browser and Google settings
Unsync your apps
Use these strategies to take control of your privacy on the internet.
1. Change your social media privacy settings
Social media contains some of your most sensitive personal information, which is why it’s important to review your privacy settings to make sure you’re comfortable with everything you’re sharing. By opting out of default settings and tweaking others, you can decrease the amount of data companies and websites have access to. Each social media platform is different, but in general you can:
Limit who sees your profile
Prohibit people from searching for your profile using your email address or phone number
Prevent your profile from showing up in Google
Opt out of automatic sharing settings
Restrict companies from sending you certain types of ads
2. Review your app permissions
When you download an app, it usually demands access to some of your personal data, like your photo reel, camera, audio recordings, or location. Apps need certain types of data to function, but they don’t need access to data all the time, especially if they use it for monetary gain. Some companies sell users’ location data to businesses that do targeted advertising, according to a 2018 report from The New York Times.
To review your permissions, go to your phone settings and scroll through your apps to see which have access to your data. You can disable the access function or change it to allow access only when you use the app. That prevents apps from knowing more than they need to, which helps boost your privacy on the internet.
3. Update your browser and Google settings
Internet browsers store your cookies, which contain details on everything from your banking details to your hobbies. To improve your internet privacy, try changing your browser settings:
Limit the amount of information your browser settings save, such as email addresses, mailing addresses, and credit card information
Block third parties from tracking your behavior and sending you targeted ads
If you have a Google account, it’s also a good idea to review your Google privacy controls. When you’re logged into Google, the site can gather data on the websites you visit, ads you click, and items you buy. If you want tighter internet privacy, you can:
Turn off your location history
Turn off certain ads
Choose what kind of activity your account saves
4. Unsync your apps
Signing into an app using Facebook makes it easier to share information with your friends on the platform, but it also reduces your internet privacy. That’s because when you log into an app via Facebook, not only does that app gain full access to the data on your Facebook account, Facebook also gets access to all the data on your app.
To limit the amount of data websites can gather, consider disconnecting your apps from your social media accounts. You can make these changes by reviewing your social media settings, then creating new accounts on any apps you still use.
Your internet privacy, your choice
You should never feel obligated to share your personal information if you don’t want to, nor should you feel obligated to hide it. Your level of internet privacy should be up to you. FigLeaf wants to put the power back in your hands by giving you control of your own data. With our tool, you can choose just how visible you want to be wherever you go online. Because when privacy is a choice, humanity is free — free to think, explore, and create in whatever way makes sense for you.