Guest Post by Philip Piletic
In the earliest days of the internet, nobody thought much about the concept of privacy. After all, surfing the internet was a mostly anonymous exercise. Advertising was static and one-size-fits-all. And there were no social media sites commanding user bases in the billions.
But along the way, things began to change. Advertisers recognized that they could collect user data to precisely target audiences. And platforms were more than willing to sell them that data in exchange for significant profits. And at the same time, people everywhere started to lead increasingly connected lives, putting more and more of their personal data within reach of countless other people and businesses.
Flash forward to today, and the idea of privacy online seems like a rather quaint notion. And yet, people spend plenty of time and money trying to regain their lost internet privacy. And the question remains: are their efforts in vain?
The answer, in most cases, is no. But to understand the true nature of internet privacy and how to protect it, you need to understand what’s threatening it. To help, here’s a look at what’s threatening our collective internet privacy and what we can (or can’t) do about it.
Keeping Advertisers at Bay
These days, digital advertisers have moved well beyond simple tracking pixels and site cookies to keep track of our movements online. Now, they’re combining data from countless sources and using sophisticated AI to create profiles of every user they’re targeting. The trouble is, it isn’t always easy to figure out where they’re getting your data from in the first place.
So, the only real defense is to begin by figuring out who can see your browsing data. Then you can take specific steps to limit or disrupt any outsider from connecting your history back to you. Modern web browsers contain tools built for this purpose. And you can also opt to use alternative privacy-focused search engines like DuckDuckGo that have no advertising motives and won’t sell your search history to others.
And to go a step further, you can use some of the widely-available ad-blocking tools to prevent ads from loading on the pages you visit.
Doing this has the additional benefit of blocking tracking pixels and other client and server-side tracking technologies advertisers use to collect data about your browsing habits. Be sure, however, to exempt websites that commit to tracker-free advertising to avoid cutting off their much-needed operating revenue.
Taking Notice of App Security
Believe it or not, your browsing history falling into the hands of advertisers is the least of your internet privacy woes. If you’re looking for an even bigger threat to your privacy, look no further than the smartphone you’re likely holding in your hand right now. That’s because most people store massive amounts of personal data on their smartphones, and also willingly grant access to that data every time they install a new app.
From a privacy perspective, it’s essential to take some time to review the permission settings on the apps you’ve installed. And then, do some research into what steps your apps’ developers are taking to safeguard your data. If you suspect that certain apps aren’t taking that responsibility seriously, delete them. There are probably countless apps you could do without, and you’ll extend the useful life of your smartphone by getting rid of them, too.
Limiting 3rd-Party Data Access
So far, the threats to our internet privacy we’ve discussed have been quite close to home. But not all of them are. Sometimes, bad actors will get access to your data through no fault of your own. It can happen when an organization you’ve done business with experiences a data breach. These days, attacks like that are happening to healthcare companies, credit reporting agencies, and even the Federal government.
And it is these types of incidents that can prove both the most damaging and the most difficult to combat. That’s because you have little control over what happens to your data once you’ve entrusted it to someone else. What you can do, however, is limit how much data you put in the hands of others, to begin with.
You can start by requesting a copy of the data collection policies of every business or government entity you interact with. That way you’ll know who’s storing what and be better able to make decisions about what’s necessary. And when it comes to technology companies, you can even request a copy of whatever data they have about you and request that they remove whatever you’re not comfortable with.
Guarding Against Government Surveillance
If internet privacy wasn’t made complicated enough by the sheer number of businesses and bad guys looking to peer into our lives, this next privacy threat finishes the job. That’s because it isn’t just private entities looking to collect data about what we say and do while online. Myriad government agencies do it too (and even some foreign governments, too). And of all of the threats to our collective privacy, this is by far the most wide-ranging.
This is because government agencies have the authority to go much further with their data collection activities than any private business or individual ever could. And judging by some of the leaked information on the topic, many of them go even further than the law allows. But because of their position in the internet data hierarchy, preventing your (or any other) government from keeping tabs on you is exceptionally difficult.
The one tool available to assist individuals with this task is encryption. In short, the more encryption you use and the more places you use it, the harder it will be for anyone to peer into your online life. That means turning to tools like VPNs and communications platforms that use end-to-end encryption. It also means encrypting the data on all of your digital devices so that no unauthorized access is possible.
And although it’s very difficult to tell how effective these defensive measures are against mass government surveillance, there’s plenty of reason to believe they work. Case in point: a group of governments is lobbying the tech industry to build backdoor access into encryption algorithms. So, if the encryption wasn’t effective, they’d have no need to seek such a remedy.
Take Your Internet Privacy Back
Even though perfect internet privacy is all but impossible, that doesn’t mean taking steps in the right direction isn’t worth it. Just putting the tips mentioned here in practice will get you a long way. But there’s even more that you can do.
You can also engage with groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation to aid in their efforts to advance the cause of internet privacy through the courts and legislatures. And you can also register your opinions with the FCC and other relevant regulatory agencies when they consider measures to enhance (or damage) internet privacy. Such efforts in the European Union resulted in the passage of the landmark GDPR privacy framework – so they’re well worth doing.
But in the meantime, the best thing to do is be careful about how and where you share your data, and try to limit access wherever possible. By doing so, you can take back much of the privacy users enjoyed in the earliest days of the internet. And that’s not so bad by today’s standards.