Although the Internet is rapidly becoming the dominant medium for business and global communication, it still remains something of a frontier, because there is little regulation. Most efforts have relied on the Internet industry to police itself. While self-policing has had some success, continued abuses have increased calls for government intervention.
Some aspects of the Internet could undoubtedly use regulation, but it's not as simple as it may seem. The very nature of the Internet–a loose constellation of networks comprising tens of millions of computers and mobile devices ringing the globe–makes it extremely difficult, if not impossible to regulate. At the same time, the absence of regulations means that everyone who uses this essentially public network can be a target for anyone who has the technical know-how and the desire to invade their privacy.
Protecting Personal Information
While the threat from hackers is low for individuals, a more serious threat to personal privacy comes from companies that operate websites. Many sites require you to register before you can use their services. Often you have to provide personal information, such as your name, street address, and e-mail address. Then as you browse the site, data is collected as to which pages you visit, how long you remain on each page, the links you click, which terms you search, and so on. After a number of visits to the site, a personal profile emerges. The question is, what do site operators do with this information?
While hackers rarely target individuals – unless they are unusually wealthy or famous – they are at risk if their personal information is stored by a company with lax digital security.
Junk mail is more of an annoyance than a serious problem. But what if you read articles about cancer on a health site? Would you want this information revealed to insurance companies? Or what if the gift you bought your boyfriend appeared on your Facebook page? Most people consider that an invasion of privacy.
Control Who Sees Your Information
Social networking sites like LinkedIn, Twitter, and Facebook, have at their core the sharing of personal information, whether it's your favorite band or your employment history. Before you post personal information, think about whether you want the world to see it. If not, you can set levels of permission that restrict who can see it.
Many sites now post their privacy policies online. Before you reveal any personal information, read the policy to make sure you agree with it. Some sites specifically seek your permission to share your personal data with third parties or to receive e-mail announcements. This is known as “opting in”. To avoid this, opt out by checking the “No” box. For more information about consumer privacy, visit TRUSTe.
If you don't want your web surfing behavior to be tracked without your consent, configure your web browser to reject cookies. A cookie is a small file created and installed on your computer's hard drive by a website that wants to collect information about your interaction with the site. As you browse through the content, information is stored in the cookie. The next time you return to the site, that data is transmitted to the site.
A piece of data sent from a website and stored in a browser. It provides a way for the website to identify individual users, track their activity, and craft a digital experience based on that information.
Cookies can't access other files on your computer, and they can be useful for things like storing a password so you don't have to enter it each time you access the site. But cookies can also be invasive because they are normally set without your consent.
EU Cookie Law
Putting Cookies Under Wraps
To control cookies when using Microsoft Internet Explorer, under the Tools menu, select Internet Options. Now click the Privacy tab and then select the Medium setting to block third-party cookies that transmit personally identifiable information without your consent.
- If Microsoft Edge, go to the Settings menu and choose “View advanced settings.” Scroll down to the Cookies option and select what type of cookies you want to block.
- With Mozilla Firefox, under the Tools menu, select Options. Now click the Privacy tab and check “Tell sites that I do not want to be tracked” box.
- In Google Chrome go to the Settings menus and click on “Show advanced settings.” In the Privacy section, you can customize cookie behavior under “Content Settings.”
Increasing privacy settings and filtering cookies can only go so far in the effort to keep your personal information private. As mentioned before, many websites require your personal information in order to sign up, even if you don’t plan on sharing it. To keep that information from becoming public, or getting into the wrong hands, it’s important to choose strong passwords and change them often. The more private the information the site has on you, the more challenging the password should be. And don’t use the same password on multiple sites. You can learn more about effective password strategies in our Passwords article.
Be Aware of How You Connect
The Internet is everywhere, and with modern mobile devices it’s easy to be online all the time. But it’s important to use caution when connecting in public places. Free Internet connections, or public Wi-Fi, are great, but they can also put you at an increased risk for Internet spying. With the right software, someone could use the public Wi-Fi network to monitor what you’re doing online. For general browsing, you shouldn’t have to worry. But avoid entering any personal information, visiting secure sites, or entering your credit card numbers when you’re using public Wi-Fi.
Protect the privacy of your electronic communications by using encryption, a form of cryptography. Encryption requires special software to encode your e-mail or any other files you want to send securely over the Internet. The person receiving these files must use the same software to decode them.
For more on encryption, read our article on secure transactions.
If you are interested in efforts to defend civil liberties on the Internet, visit the Electronic Frontier Foundation website.
Frequently Asked Questions
Do all websites have to say when they’re using cookies?
I hid my address on social media. Is there anything else I should hide?
It’s a good idea to avoid posting anything that could compromise your privacy or security. For instance, posting about leaving your house could make you a target for theft. Don’t show your entire date of birth (just stick with the month and day), as this is often used by websites to verify your identity. It’s also a good idea to avoid posting anything overly personal about your past (mother’s maiden name, the name of your first pet, the town where you were born, etc.) since many websites use this type of information for security questions. If you have children, you should take extra caution when posting about their lives, since you never know who might be reading.
What is the most important step I can take to protect myself online?
Staying safe online is mostly about being smart about the choices you make. Only share personal information when you have to. When you do share it, make sure your connection is secure. And don’t make it too easy for others to access your personal information. But all that said, the single most important thing you can do to protect yourself on the Internet is to make sure your technology is up to date. Your computer probably has more personal information about you than your social media sites could ever hope to. Downloading the latest security updates for your operating system and your web browsers is the best way to keep that information from getting into the wrong hands.