Privacy online – what you can do (and what you can’t)

Many of us have moments when we need, or want, to be more private online - when searching for a new job, for instance, or when having a private business conversation.

Many of us have moments when we need, or want, to be more private online – when searching for a new job, for instance, or when having a private business conversation.

Many of us have moments when we need, or want, more privacy online – when searching for a new job, for instance, or when having a private business conversation.

In some cases, it’s more serious – such as when a youngster wants to escape from online bullies, or someone believes they may be being spied on.

Privacy online is not always easy: there are a huge number of businesses built on using your data. There are, however,  some steps which can help.

The key thing  is to remember that some online environments do put your privacy online at risk – that way, if you need to, you can steer clear.

Privacy online: you are never truly private on a work or school network

privacy online

Whether you are searching for a job, gossiping about colleagues, or simply doing non-work activities such as Facebook, it is a bad idea to do it on a work network. This applies equally to school or other networks.

While some security measures do work, in theory, information about which sites you have connected to WILL be available to your employer, and they will often be within their legal rights to collect and use this information.

Using Incognito or Private mode in your browser will not cover your tracks. Your connections to websites will still be visible not only during, but after your session.

Laws vary by territory, but employers often have the right to intercept and read communications – including emails, phone calls, and checking browsing history. .

If you are worried about privacy online, don’t do it via a work network. Wait until you are home, or browse via a smart device instead (obviously ensure that the device is your own, and not connected to your employer’s Wi-Fi network first).

Remember that your PC is not the only machine logging your browsing

privacy online

There are no magic bullets when it comes to privacy online – and relying on your browser’s ‘delete history’ function is dangerous.

If you have logged into services such as Google or Facebook, these will be storing versions of your browsing history by default. In Google’s case, this can be visible to others – for instance, on Android devices logged in to the same account, where your browsing history may be used to supply suggestions in Chrome. This can be changed via your Google Dashboard.

In Facebook’s case, this information is less likely to be visible to others  – but it can still haunt you, in the form of targeted adverts based on sites you’ve visited. A detailed guide to Facebook’s privacy settings can be found here.

If you need to be private, don’t log in to services such as Google or Facebook. Browser plug-ins such as Click&Clean offer tools to check whether you are logged in to services such as Facebook, which might log your activities online, before browsing.

Don’t let your usernames give you away

privacy online

Most of us have log-ins for dozens of sites and services online – and it can be easy to use something such as a personal email address as a ‘throwaway’ log-in online.

This leaves tracks which others could use to find out information on you. Not only is this potentially valuable to cybercriminals, it can lead harassers or stalkers right to you.

For children, this applies double – it’s worth checking that children don’t use their real names or, crucially, their ages in online games or other services that they use to stay protected. This can be a magnet for unpleasant attention online. A more detailed guide to keeping children private and secure can be found here.

As with passwords, use usernames which don’t include useful information about you – and ideally, vary these as much as you can. If you need to use an email to log in to sites, use a ‘throwaway’ address rather than your personal one.

Remember that your smartphone isn’t private

It’s easy to imagine that your smartphone is somehow more private than PCs you use – but the reverse is often the case.

Smartphones have a habit of remembering ‘safe’ Wi-Fi networks – such as those provided by your network – but these can leave users at risk, as reported by Ars Technica earlier this year.

Smartphone browsers often offer you less control over security – and apps constantly ask you to log in using either Google or Facebook details, which will instantly make that application’s data available to the two advertisers.

This can mean that you’ll start to receive advertising based on information to that app – which can be highly personal.

If you use apps where you sign in via a Facebook login, this allows the social network to use information from the app. In general, PCs offer more ways to control who is watching you and what they see. If you are worried about individual apps misusing your data, watch ESET’s video guide to spotting ‘bad’ apps here.

Encryption is one of the few things you CAN trust

privacy online

Properly used, encryption software will protect your secrets behind a password – and will make things difficult for eavesdroppers or thieves.

Basic file-encryption systems are now available free for both Mac and Windows (‘FileVault 2’ in new versions of Mac OS X, although Windows’ equivalent, ‘BitLocker’ is only available in the Pro and Enterprise versions of Windows 8.)

Both systems are relatively easy to use. Android and iOS also offer ways to encrypt your device if you are carrying information you would prefer others not to see. More detailed information can be found here.

Using VPN software will help to keep your conversations private

If you need to use the internet privately, Virtual Private Network (VPN) software can help prevent others ‘listening in’. VPNs offer secure point-to-point connections which are far more difficult to ‘listen in’ to than any conversation conducted over the internet itself.

They are difficult for others to access without the proper credentials and/or software, and offer a quick way to add a layer of privacy to conversations or business conducted online.

There are several good, cheap options for individual users – although you will usually have to pay a small monthly subscription fee to use all functions on most VPN services.

For more information on VPNs, watch ESET’s video guide here.