The Ultimate Guide for Online Privacy

Thanks to Edward Snowden releasing the documents regarding NSA spying activity, we now have an idea of just how vulnerable we are when we are online. The worst part is that it is not only the NSA who spies on citizens; governments all over the world enact laws that allow them to watch and store information about their citizens' online activity.

The good news is that you can protect yourself from the all-seeing eyes of Big Brother in a number of ways.

What Can You Do To Improve Your Privacy?

There are many things you can do from encrypting your data to clearing and securing your online activity. Even though not all the recommendations will work perfectly every time, they drastically improve your online privacy.

1. Talk to an Organization That Can Help

Many times, it's simpler to just do things ourselves. However, when it comes to cybersecurity, that can be hard to do. Simply trying to understand encryption, or configuring your router with a VPN, can be extremely tedious.

That's why it's best to talk to someone who can help you. AccessNow has a digital security hotline that offers a range of resources and advice to help you stay safe online. Whether you're a reporter who needs to stay anonymous or your company might be at risk for a ransomware attack, AccessNow can help you figure out what you need to do to remain safe.

2. Use a VPN

VPNs are becoming more and more popular nowadays both for security and for accessing the internet. VPNs, which stand for Virtual Private Networks, encrypt your data and secure your internet connection using a virtual tunnel. While VPNs were originally meant for big companies, millions of people use them for personal reasons, too.

A VPN not only encrypts your data, but it can also change your virtual location, making you appear as if you are located somewhere else. This is useful if you want to hide your location and remain anonymous, but it's also useful if you want to watch a TV show that is not available in your country. VPNs are also used to access blocked content and websites in censored countries, like China.

The best part is, VPNs have become so mainstream that they are now affordable and easy to use.

We list our most recommended VPNs here.

3. Browse on Tor

If you require a high degree of anonymity online, the Tor network is a great option. Tor is short for “The Onion Router,” which refers to the multiple layers of encryption used to protect your privacy. Tor makes you anonymous on the web.

To access the Tor Network you should use the Tor Browser. It's not as simple as popular online browsers, but it does its job well. This has made it a popular anti-censorship tool. You can learn more about Tor and how to use it here.

You can also use a VPN with Tor for extra protection.  

4. Stop Using Search Engines That Track You

Many of the most widely used search engines store information about you. This is especially true for Google (luckily, there are many great alternatives that are safer to use). The information that is stored includes your IP address, the time and date you use the website, the search terms, and your computer’s Cookie ID.

The gathered information is then transmitted to the web page owner and the owners of any advertising on the website. This allows advertisers to collect data on you while you surf the internet. The collected data is then used to create a profile about you, which they use to create targeted advertisements based on your internet history.

Along with giving this data to the website and advertising owners, search engines have to hand over the collected information to courts and governments. This is only done if the information is requested, but these requests are becoming more often.

However, some search engines do not collect data on their users. One of the most popular is DuckDuckGo. Along with not collecting your data, this non-tracking search engine avoids the does not promote search results based on your previous search query.

5. Clear Your Search History

If you use a browser that retains your search history (Chrome, Firefox, and Internet Explorer all do), it's a good idea to clear your browsing history. This is not going to stop anyone from spying or gathering information about you, but it limits your web browsers ability to profile you. Regardless of whether you plan to switch to a non-tracking search engine or stay with Google, you should clear your search history from time to time.

6. Secure Your Online Purchases

Two of the biggest online attacks that happen today are identity theft and credit card theft. The main reason for this is that we use our credit cards to purchase things online daily. While many websites have a secure way of paying, it does not guarantee that your credit card information is safe.

Malicious hackers can penetrate a website's server and steal payment records, which could lead them to you. One way to protect your credit card information is to use PayPal, but not all websites accept this as a form of payment, and it still can connect you to your credit card (it just takes a few extra steps).

The most secure way to secure your online purchases is to use a cryptocurrency. The most well-known cryptocurrency used today is Bitcoin, and while it's complicated to understand, it's rather simple to use. While you are not completely anonymous with Bitcoin (especially if you send a purchased item to an address or transfer your money into a different currency), it definitely protects your credit card information.

7. Clear Your DNS Cache and Cookies

To speed up your browsing, browsers cache website IP addresses from your DNS server. This is another way your browsing history and online activity can be tracked. Luckily, it is very simple to clean the DNS cache. Simply search how to clear your cache on your device and you'll find a step-by-step guide.

Similarly, Flash Cookies track your activity. Flash Cookies track in a similar manner to regular cookies, but the good news is they can easily be deleted. We recommend downloading and using CCleaner which is one of the best software that removes Fash Cookies along with other unimportant files on your device.  

8. Be Aware of Other Tracking Tech

There are a lot of sophisticated and devious methods that can track your data and online activity. Without using a VPN, it's hard to guarantee that these devices won't track you, but being aware of them is the first step to protecting yourself.  ETags are one of those methods that are hard to detect. They are markers used by browsers to track your browsing. Cache clearing after every website and turning off your cache can work. However, these methods are time-consuming and have negative effects on browsing experience. If you use Firefox, you can add the add-on called Secret Agent that prevents ETag tracking.

Similarly, history stealing, which exploits your entire browsing history and is used to create a profile about you, can only be thwarted with preventative tools, such as a VPN.

9. Turn off Your HTML Web Storage

Web Storage is built into HTML5, which is used for most websites. The problem with web storage is that it is much better at storing information than cookies. The stored information is not allowed to be monitored or selectively removed, as cookies are.

For all internet browsers, web storage is enabled by default. If you use Internet Explorer or Firefox, you can simply turn off web storage. You can also use the add-on Better Privacy for Firefox, which removes the web storage information automatically. The Click and Clean extension and Google NotScripts can be used for Google Chrome.

10. Secure Your Emails

While most email providers’ use SSL encryption to protect your email correspondences from invaders, there are ways to hack it.

Although the ideal way to protect your emails is to encrypt them so only the receiver can read your correspondence, this is not a feasible option.

If you want to find a privacy-oriented email provider, we recommend ProtonMail. Otherwise, there are some apps and add-ons that provide a better form of encryption.

Another simple thing to do that can protect your email is to create a strong password (this tool can help you create one). This makes all that much harder for someone to hack into your account. It's not a guarantee that your email will never be hacked, but it's definitely a good step in the right direction.

11. Protect Your Cloud Storage

Cloud storage is becoming more and more common. And, while it's a great tool to have, Clouds can easily be hacked. Big Cloud industries, such as Dropbox, Amazon, Apple, Google, and Microsoft state in their Terms of Use that they reserve the right to investigate all uploaded files, and will hand over the files to authorities if they receive a court order. While this is not going to affect most people, the idea of someone looking through our files is creepy, to say the least.

If you want to make sure that your files in the cloud are secure, there are some basic approaches that you can use.

  1. Manually encrypt your files before uploading
    There are so many programs that will encrypt your files for you. The major advantage of this method is that you can use all Cloud storage services without having to worry about your files (as long as you do not upload your encryption keys).
  2. Use a Cloud Storage that Automatically Encrypts
    There are some Cloud services that will automatically encrypt your files before they are uploaded to the Cloud. The changes that are made to folders or files are synced with the local versions, then secured and uploaded to the Cloud. There is the chance that the provider has the decryption key, so your data is still at risk; however, this risk is not as high as other Cloud service providers.

12. Install Anti-Malware and Antivirus Software

There is a huge amount of malicious code on the internet; this commonly known as Malware. Ransomware, which is a form of malware, is also prevalent on the internet. It's important to know the differences between the two.

Similarly, viruses can infect your computer. This can range from making your computer slow down to destroying it completely. Some viruses are silent, and they sit on your computer collecting data and sending it to the creator. This means that these viruses can log your passwords, bank account details, and more. The best way to protect yourself is to install anti-malware and anti-virus software.

This software can detect viruses and malware on your computer and delete them. They also usually will warn you if they think a file is malicious or harmful in any way.

13. Install a Firewall

A Firewall monitors your network traffic and (when properly configured) detects and blocks certain traffic. The Great Firewall of China is an example of a Firewall that blocks certain websites. Firewalls can be a pain to set up, but once they are, they are simple to use.

14. Protect Your Mobile Phone

Just like your computer is susceptible to attacks, your phone is, too. Conversations can be recorded, text messages can be intercepted and read, and VoIP calls can be monitored.

In addition, since we use our smartphones for so many things (including accessing our bank accounts), your detailed and private information can easily be hacked. The simplest solution is to not use a cellphone, but that's practically impossible nowadays. Instead, installing a VPN and encrypting your messages (on your iPhone or Android) is the best way to protect your mobile data.

Your Privacy is Worth It

All the measures described above take time, effort, and some money. Additionally, some of the precautions we suggested taking could cause you to lose some of the cooler functions from web-based services that need cookies and other data to perform well.

However, cyber attacks are so common nowadays that everyone should use some of the suggestions above. Even taking basic security measures can help protect you. The first step is to install a VPN on your device. The VPNs below are easy to use, do not cost a lot of money, and can really protect you.

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