What to do when the promise of internet privacy fails
Most of us expect to share a certain amount of personal information when we go online. In return, we expect the companies and websites we share our details with will use our information responsibly.
Unfortunately, this doesn’t always happen. As data collection and tracking becomes increasingly more common, the concept of internet privacy has changed. Most consumers think of privacy on the internet as protection over their personal information, while web giants tend to view internet privacy as a fair trade for the convenience of a digital experience.
What is the promise of internet privacy?
The EU General Data Protection Regulation, which began enforcement in 2018, recently gained global attention for its efforts to better protect EU citizens’ online privacy. In addition to giving consumers more rights surrounding their data, the regulation also imposes penalties on companies that don’t comply with the rules.
Today, most companies have privacy policies that outline the following:
The types of data they collect
How they collect and use the data
How long they store the data
Which parties have access to the data
The security measures they take to protect the data
Transparent privacy policies are meant to help protect both companies and consumers, but they have limits. Rather than granting you automatic privacy on the internet or giving you control over your data, these policies simply tell you what level of privacy you can expect when using a certain website. This gives the power to companies instead of consumers. According to Acxiom’s 2018 data privacy survey, 75% of consumers believe businesses benefit more than individuals from data exchanges.
How to better protect your internet privacy
Companies and website hosts promise to use your data responsibly, but their version of what that means might differ from yours. What’s more, privacy breaches are steadily increasing. According to the 2019 Thales Data Threat Report, 36% of U.S. respondents experienced a data breach in 2018, compared to just 26% in 2017.
If the promise of internet privacy fails you, you’re not alone. Whether your data was exposed in a breach or simply used in a way you weren’t comfortable with, there are steps you can take to protect yourself going forward. Here are five smart ideas:
Remove sensitive information from certain websites
Change your social media privacy settings
Use a virtual private network
Review your app permissions
Download ad blockers
Consider how these five strategies might boost your level of privacy on the internet.
1. Remove sensitive information from certain websites
The first step to amping up your internet privacy is reducing the amount of personally identifiable information (PII) available online. This includes any details that can be used to identify you, like your email address, phone number, mailing address, bank account number, driver’s license number, or social security number.
Start by making a list of all the sites where you have an account, including social media platforms, newsletters, online stores, airline websites, and utility providers. Go through each of these sites and scan your account for personal information.
Of course, it’s not realistic to get rid of every single piece of personal information online, nor is it necessary. But it’s important to review everything and determine what you’re comfortable sharing. If you’re a small business owner, for example, you may want to keep your email address visible on your LinkedIn page, but not your cell number.
2. Change your social media privacy settings
Collectively, your social media platforms have access to a huge amount of personal data. Through data tracking, companies can gather information on your location, job, financial situation, habits, and preferences. They can then use this data for marketing and advertising purposes.
Fortunately, you can protect your privacy by adjusting your privacy settings. Each platform has its own unique options, but in general, you can:
Limit who sees your activity, profile, and posts
Prevent search engines from linking to your profile
Prohibit certain companies from seeing your data and sending you ads
If you want to go a step further, consider unsyncing apps connected to your social media accounts. While syncing apps is more convenient for login purposes, it also means the two platforms can share your data with one another.
3. Encrypt your data
Certain privacy tools can help increase your privacy as you browse the web. For example, a virtual private network works by sending your internet traffic through an encrypted tunnel to a separate server, which prevents anyone connected to your router, including your internet service provider, from seeing your internet data.
This doesn’t completely eliminate or prohibit all tracking, but it can limit how much personal data gets shared. It’s especially helpful when you’re on public Wi-Fi, since your information is more vulnerable on public networks.
4. Review your app permissions
Most apps you download demand access to some of your personal data. Weather apps, for example, need your location information to give you the weekly forecast, while photo editing apps need access to your camera roll to function. Giving certain apps access to your data is helpful, but giving them 24/7 access, even when you’re not using them, significantly reduces your internet privacy.
That’s why it’s smart to review your app permissions to make sure you’re comfortable with the types of data you’re sharing. Go to your phone settings, scroll through your downloaded apps, and check each one to see what information they have permission to access, whether it’s your location, microphone, photo reel, or camera. You can adjust the settings to either revoke access or only allow it while you’re using the app.
5. Use tracker blockers
The websites you visit aren’t one-sided portals of information — they’re also there to gather your information. Even the ads you click have tracking capabilities, so they can collect your data and send it to their hosts, leaving you vulnerable to targeted advertising.
You can minimize the amount of your data companies can gather by installing a tracker blocker. A tracker blocker tool prevents companies from retrieving your data and using it to feed you unwanted ads or push content you may not be interested in.
Internet privacy should be up to you
The promise of internet privacy, while great in theory, doesn’t always provide the most comprehensive protection in reality. The majority of web hosts don’t grant you control over your own data, which means your privacy on the internet is dependent on the sites you visit. But your internet privacy shouldn’t be conditional. FigLeaf wants to give you back the control by letting you choose your level of internet privacy wherever you go online.