Nearly twenty years into the 21st century, we are losing the battle for online privacy. Some would say that privacy, in general, is under attack. The counterpoint, as always, is that nobody is "forcing" us to use the technologies through which our information is so often exposed.
Going back to a life without email and social networking tools seems practically medieval now, even though a majority of Earth's population was born in a time before these things were available to the mainstream.
There may not be a perfect solution, but there are ways to increase your online privacy and achieve some peace-of-mind.
1. Change your passwords
Chances are good that, by now, you've watched the requirements for your passwords go from reasonable to very secure to double-secret ridiculous. The thing about passwords is, while brute-force attacks are still sometimes used to crack them, bad guys usually just copy them from some data they stole elsewhere.
To increase your security, first find out which of your passwords has been compromised. Change any account passwords that use them and then continue changing them on a regular basis. A password vault app can help you with this.
2. Stay off public networks
We're fortunate that we can access the internet from nearly anywhere these days, but if you're handling sensitive data, you may not want to jump on any old network. Internet connections available at your local coffee shop or airport are public — and that means criminals can access them and intercept your communications.
If you must use a public network, make sure you have a high-quality firewall installed and minimize your time online. Avoid making sensitive communications such as banking transactions.
3. Use a secure file-sharing client
As our ability to create content expands and we send larger and more complex files over the internet, the risk of those files being intercepted or corrupted increases. A new line of file sharing applications is hitting the market that offer better security than some of the old-school apps.
Onionshare is one such solution. It masks the information being sent along with its origin and destination using the Onion virtual private network (VPN) network that you may know from apps like Vidalia.
4. Use a VPN
Speaking of VPNs, you can actually do all of your browsing through a VPN and obfuscate your online activity to anyone who's trying to watch it. Some internet providers have even partnered up with VPN companies to promote a VPN service.
While there are advanced hacking techniques that could still expose your data when you are using a VPN, cybercrime is much like actual theft in the sense that most crimes are crimes of opportunity. Adding a layer of protection makes your data that much less attractive to would-be thieves.
5. Log out or lock your computer
Many people don't realize that when you leave your computer running unattended, hackers can break in and take advantage of your access. Your operating system password may seem like a silly thing, it can be the difference between allowing a breach and securing your data.
Hackers might attempt to access your machine remotely, but it's important to know that attacks do happen in the workplace when someone gains physical access to a machine. Make sure you lock your computer or log out when you're not working.
6. Track who's tracking you
On any given website, there might be up to 20 different organizations using scripting tools to follow your browsing habits. You have the choice to opt out of most of these. However, you would never think to do it because you are not alerted to the fact that they are running.
Apps like Privacy Badger and Disconnect let you know what is running in the background and give you control to deny these trackers. If you install one, be prepared for a shock — some of your favorite sites have a lot going on behind the scenes.
7. Avoid sites that aren't https
That "https" you see in the URL for sites you visit stands for "hypertext transfer protocol with secure socket layer." Sites that don't have the "s" on the end are — you guessed it — not secure. You should take note of this, because data sent to these sites is very vulnerable.
You can use an app like HTTPS Everywhere, available as an extension for Firefox and Chrome, to have your browser automatically look for a way to connect to any site through https. Site owners are also taking steps to implement more secure protocols just about everywhere, but it's important not to let your guard down.
8. Be smart about your browsing
This is the oldest rule in the book, but it's also a critical one. You know where you've been on the internet — if you take risks by visiting sites that might be hotbeds of criminal activity, be prepared to see consequences for them.
This doesn't just apply to browsing, but also to engaging in things like file sharing (p2p) networks and even online video chats. Any time large quantities of data change hands, you can bet there's good reason to be cautious.
9. Install a (better) security solution
Microsoft wants you to believe Windows Defender is all you need, but there are still threats out there that benefit from the cloud-driven databases security companies offer. Install a solution that offers firewall and network monitoring features, such as ESET Internet Security or Trend Micro Antivirus+Security, to maximize your data security.
In the fight against cybercrime, the tide will eventually turn — but that day is a long way out. Until then, you've got to be committed to keeping your data secure, so keep these tips with you as you explore the online realm. We are more connected than ever before, but we are also more exposed.
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