A guide to protecting your privacy online

Shane McNamee 25 Nov 2021

Privacy is a non-renewable resource — once you give up details, they can remain available to all sorts of bad actors

There has never been a more important time to protect your online privacy than now.

Data breaches continue to expose millions of users and their passwords, ransomware attacks remain prevalent, and the Covid-19 pandemic has motivated criminals to bombard businesses with phishing lures to try to leverage their malware and compromise more users. These activities can empty your bank accounts, steal your identity to set up credit cards in your name, or buy things online that get shipped to someone you have never heard of before.

Privacy is a non-renewable resource; once you give up details such as your birthday, bank accounts, and other personal data, they can remain available to all sorts of bad actors. But protecting your privacy isn’t always easy, which is why these details can be so easily found in various online forums. This protection requires a series of steps, and a series of choices that you make every day when you post family pictures on your social media accounts or reply to a seemingly innocent request to reset one of your passwords, making sure that these are genuine services and not phishing lures is paramount. 

All it takes is for you to slip up once, make one mistake, click on one malware-laced attachment, and your privacy could be compromised. But instead of taking extreme steps to hide offline and forgo the internet completely, there is help available to you now. And in this post, I want to take you through the steps you can take and the choices you can make to preserve and protect your online identity and personal data. 

The challenge is that there isn’t a single magic bullet that can provide this protection. And while the number of products that can help initially seems daunting, there really is a reason for each individual piece. Let’s lay out the landscape.

First, you need to examine your password collection. If you have a favorite one (such as your pet’s name) that you reuse in several places, you’ll need to put an end to that practice and change those passwords to something unique and something that isn’t easily guessed. One of the best ways to do this is to use a password manager to create complex passwords that you don’t have to remember: you just need to use the tool, be rigorous about changing your older and simpler passwords, and remember the master password for that tool. A reputable password manager, for example, can generate appropriate passwords and keep track of them so you don’t even have to know what the password for a particular website actually is.

One other place for password protection: when you operate your phone, you should make use of any fingerprint or facial recognition feature to keep others from accessing your data. If you don’t have either, make sure to set a PIN code so that it remains protected.

Second are a series of technologies that can help protect you from various tracking technologies and browser fingerprinting. These include using the private browsing setting, using appropriate antivirus software and avoiding sites that will track your movements

However, sometimes even private browsing can leave you vulnerable and some operating systems and browser combinations can leak data, for that there are browser query helpers. 

In all versions of Windows, there is a feature that separates the choice of default web browser and the default search sites for text and other types of searches (such as news and weather data). This is a new feature of the latest Avast Secure Browser called Taskbar Searching so once you select it as your default browser, you can choose your taskbar search engine directly from within the browser. In this way, you as the user gets to decide their full online experience and maintain their privacy choices by choosing their browser and search engines based on preference

Another feature of Avast Secure Browser PRO is its built-in VPN. No one should leave home without using one, because as soon as you connect to a new Wi-Fi network, you are exposing your computer and your data to others who may be on the network and looking to collect this information from your online activities. In addition to its VPN, it also has features that will block tracking ads and prevent phishing attacks. 

Next, you should consider using a data broker removal service such as Avast BreachGuard to eliminate your username and email address from these third parties that buy and sell your information. Avast One has a built-in tool to use to remove your data from these brokers. This software also comes with helpful ways to improve your privacy on various social media platforms, and will offer helpful suggestions to change your privacy settings to make them more secure. 

Another tip is to make use of a private email forwarding service, such as 33mail.com. This way you don’t have to give anyone your actual email address, but instead a mailbox on their service which is free. Next time you visit a website that asks for your email address, instead of giving them your real email address, just make one up especially for them, such as bookstore@shanem.33mail.com. If the bookstore starts sending you excessive emails, you can delete this email address and go about your day. A similar approach can be taken with Apple’s ‘Hide my Email’ function, and ProtonMail’s ‘+Aliases’.

Finally, you should think carefully about how to keep your text messages private. Instead of using the built-in texting apps for your phone, consider using a third-party service that encrypts your messages, such as Signal or Telegram. Signal has a feature where you can set messages to automatically delete themselves after a fixed time period. You should also turn off cloud-based backups of your messaging traffic, since they can more easily be accessed by anyone who can guess your password. Make sure to limit the use of your direct messages, since their content is out of your control once they are sent to your recipients.

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