Almost everything you do online, whether it's visiting a website, reading a blog, downloading music or sending e-mail, leaves a trail of personal data. Some of it remains on your computer; some is transmitted to third parties. While this is not necessarily a bad thing, you can and should control who sees it. In the interest of protecting your privacy, we offer some tips.
1. Don't mix business and leisure.
Get an e-mail address for personal use. You have little privacy protection with company e-mail. Most businesses claim that it is their right and responsibility to monitor e-mail because it represents the company, uses company equipment and travels over the company network. You could argue the point, but getting a private e-mail address is much easier. Use your business address for company business only.
2. Avoid being too social on social media.
Don't post anything on social media that could embarrass or otherwise create a problem for you if it were exposed to the general public – even if your account is private.
Social media site such as Facebook and Twitter are great ways to stay in touch with old friends and connect to new ones, but they can also put your personal information online for the whole world to see. Thankfully, most social media sites let you specify what information is shared and who it’s shared with.
Don’t share your date of birth or obscure information about your past (mother’s maiden name, the name of your first pet, etc.). Many websites use this type of information to verify your identity, so it should always be kept private. Avoid telling people when you’re going to be away from home or out of town, as this information can make you a target for burglars. And if you have children, be especially cautious about providing information such as your home address or where your children go to school. Even if you only share posts with your “friends,” don’t trust that no one else sees them or that you everyone on your friends list is trustworthy.
3. Ignore spam.
Anyone can report spam email to the Federal Trade Commission. Just forward the offending email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
You can report spam to your Internet Service Provider or e-mail service. With Gmail, for instance, click on the Report Spam button to mark the sender as unsafe and send the message to your Spam folder.
4. Remove old e-mail from your computer.
When you delete messages, they remain on your system. To permanently remove them, open the Deleted Mail folder, highlight the messages and delete them again (or use the Empty folder button). Some e-mail programs automatically empty deleted mail once you close the program.
Be aware that messages may still reside somewhere on your computer. A trained technician may be able to recover them. Messages may also remain on the mail server for some period of time and may be archived in file back-ups.
5. Turn on the cookie alert.
A cookie is a small file sent by a web server to your web browser to record your activities on a particular website. Cookies can be a useful way to store information, such as the login for a website you visit often. But if you want, you can remove them. Here's how:
- If you use Internet Explorer, go to the Tools menu, then select Internet Options. Next, click on the General tab, then under Browsing history, click Delete, then click Delete cookies. When prompted, click Yes to delete the cookies.
- With Firefox, under the Tools menu, select Options. Now click Privacy. Under History, click on the Remove Individual Cookies link. When the new window opens, click Remove All Cookies.
- In Google Chrome, go to the settings menu and click on Show advanced settings. Scroll down to the Privacy section and click “Clear browsing data.” In the window that pops up, select the timeframe you want to delete, check the box in front of “Cookies and other site and plugin data,” and click the “Clear browsing data” box at the bottom of the window.
6. Use Private Browsing or Anonymizers.
Most web browsers now include a Privacy Mode, which allows you to browse the Web without your activities from being tracked or your computer storing browsing history or information. For even more privacy, you can also use online tools that disguise who you are and where you come from.
7. Review sites' privacy policies.
Websites that collect personal data may allow you to decide whether the data can be shared with third parties, such as marketing companies, and whether you want to receive e-mail offers from them. Typically, you check a box, either agreeing to this or refusing. You have no obligation to share your personal information with anyone, so opt-out if the offer holds no interest.
Most browsers now allow you to send an opt-out notice by default. To enable this feature, follow the steps above for removing cookies and find your browser’s privacy settings. Look for the Do Not Track checkbox.
9. Make sure your computer is secure.
If you access the Internet with a dial-up account, the chances of data theft are minimal. But if you have a broadband connection, such as DSL or a cable modem, watch out. With these “always on” connections, you become a more likely target for hackers. Be sure your computer has a firewall. Microsoft Windows has one built-in, as does the Mac OS. But should you need to install a firewall, we recommend ZoneAlarm. You can download it for free from ZoneLabs.
You should also make sure your computer and browsers are always up-to-date. Make sure to set both to install critical updates automatically, that way any security vulnerabilities are fixed as soon as an update becomes available.
10. Clean up your history files, location bar list and cache.
As you surf the Web, your browser both records the addresses of where you've been and stores downloaded files in a cache. If you want to keep this information from prying eyes, periodically clear the temporary Internet files, delete the history files and the drop-down list under the address or location bar. While this may seem an extreme step, if you share a computer or use a public computer, consider doing this. Here's how:
- With Internet Explorer, under the Tools menu, select Internet Options. Now click on the General tab. Next, under Browsing history, click on Delete.
- With Firefox, under the Tools menu, select Options. Now click on Advanced, then the Network tab. Next, under Cached Web Content, click Clear Now. Next, click on the Privacy tab. You have the option of choosing whether Firefox stores the sites you visit and for how long. You can also choose to have Firefox clear private data when you close the browser.
- With Google Chrome, go to the settings menu and click on Show advanced settings. Scroll down to the Privacy section and click “Clear browsing data.” In the window that pops up, select the timeframe you want to delete, check the box in front of “Cached images and files,” and click the “Clear browsing data” box at the bottom of the window.
Frequently Asked Questions
Are there good cookies?
Most cookies are harmless, and in many ways the Internet could not function without them. For instance, online shopping is made possible by cookies that track the items you place in your shopping cart. Imagine if you had to pay for each item individually before you could browse for anything else! Cookies also allow websites you visit frequently to keep track of your username and preferences, so you don’t have to sign in every time you visit Facebook. Cookies are also used by website owners to keep track of how many visitors their site is getting and what pages are most popular, allowing them to improve their website and better meet their visitors’ needs. Of course, some cookies can also be used to track your browsing history and market to you all across the Internet, which raises many privacy concerns.
Do I need to take any additional precautions when I’m away from home?
Public Internet access is a wonderful thing. It makes it possible to stay in touch with our friends from anywhere, check for valuable savings while we’re staring at the item we want to buy, and live tweet every moment of our day. But those advantages also come with some security risks. Identity thieves love public Wi-Fi, because with the right software they can watch everything you do online. Always assume someone may be watching when you’re using public Wi-Fi, and keep your browsing to sites that do not require you to enter any private information. Wait to check your bank statements or use a credit card to make online purchases until you get home. If you’re using a public computer, use the same precautions and make sure to clear your browser history before you log off.