There are many helpful, detailed "how-to" guides and products that will help you limit your data leaks: some are listed below. However, many such guides overlook 4 basic, key things that you should do to protect your online privacy:
- Take control of the amount of personal information that you provide online, to anyone. Provide identifying information only when it will truly benefit you in substantial ways. Every time you are asked to provide personal information, consider both the risks and the benefits.
- Educate others about the importance of online privacy and the various steps they can take to protect it. It's not enough not to post key information about yourself, or to adjust your privacy settings, if others are willing to post that information or to allow third parties access to it. The process of maintaining as much online privacy as possible must be a communal effort for the common good.
- Get informed about laws and regulations or other types of measures that impact online privacy, and advocate for the ones you support.
- If you believe that online privacy is important, put your money where your privacy is: let companies know that you value your privacy and that you will take your business elsewhere if they don't.
Beyond those broad steps, here are a few things you should do right away:
- Set your Privacy Settings (on Facebook, Twitter, or whatever other social media sites you use) –and then reset your settings if/when companies change their policies.
- Get anti-virus protection for your computer. Install updates (or patches) for your software programs, as you receive them. And turn your computer off when not in use. It's not just about protecting yourself—it's also about not infecting others.
- Change your passwords frequently, and make them hard to guess. We've all heard this advice by now, but have you actually done it? Do it now. To create a password that would be hard to break, make it longer than 8 characters, and use both lowercase and caps, as well as numbers or punctuation marks. Consider using a phrase that you will remember easily. Microsoft offers a way to measure the strength of your passwords, use this tool to see how yours stack up.
- Use different passwords for important sites, so that if one is breached, the other accounts will not be affected.
- Don't get caught in the phishing net. If you don't recognize the sender of an email, or if an email that comes from a recognized source just doesn't sound right, don't open it. Don't forward it, either. Call your friend, or bank, or whatever the source claims to be, and confirm that the email really came from that site. Keep in mind that there are many scam artists angling for you.
- Try not to include any key pieces of information (such as your Social Security number or credit card numbers) in email.
- Depending how much privacy you want, use products and services available now that do not collect and share or sell information about their users. There are now search engines, email providers, social networking sites, etc., that promise this kind of service—many of them for free.
Use the links below for some simple tips and more detailed overviews of measures that you can take to protect yourself online (and off):
Irina Raicu is the Internet Ethics Program manager at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics.
Photo by Judy ** under Creative Commons.