Do you know how easy it is to find certain information about you or your computer online? Do your kids know? It's easier than you might think. Stuff that you post on social media, things that you look for on search engines, and even where you've been on the Internet (or where you are in the world) can be found over the Internet by governments, Internet companies, and some troublemaking individuals.
Usually, these practices are relatively harmless, but they're still a bit creepy (which is why there are some organizations trying to get them stopped, or at least curbed). Fortunately, there are some simple things that you and your family can think about and do to limit the amount of sensitive information about yourselves that can be tracked online. Here are 5 of our best general suggestions.
1. Use a custom private web browser instead of "private browsing"
Many popular Internet browsers have a "private browsing" mode, but it really isn't all that private. This is because it only deletes Internet tracking records (such as your browsing history, cache, and cookies) from your computer when you close your browser. Plus, it only works for that specific browser, and only for the time that you were in "private browsing" mode. Basically, all that it does is prevent other people who use the same computer as you from seeing where you've been on the Internet.
However, your "digital footprints" are fair game for governments, website owners, data collection companies, and even some overly-nosy individuals while you're still actively browsing the Internet. "Private browsing" mode won't do anything to help this. What will help, though, is a custom private web browser that uses technical tricks to make your activity on the Internet difficult or impossible to track... and not just for people who use the same computer as you. If you're used to using Google Chrome, try Epic Privacy Browser or Comodo Dragon. If you're a Mozilla Firefox fan instead, try T.O.R. (The Onion Router) or Comodo IceDragon.
2. Search privately to avoid targeted results and advertisements
Some of the most common search engines -- the big three being Google Search, Yahoo Search, and Bing -- keep track of the different things that you search for when using them. Not only do they use this information to show you advertisements related to what you have searched for (which is annoying and sort of creepy), but some of them may even alter your search results to be closer to things that you have looked for in the past.
However, there are private search engines like DuckDuckGo, StartPage, and Disconnect Search that don't engage in this practice. They only track your search results to improve their own accuracy, not to tailor advertisements or results to your supposed tastes. This means that you can count on them for consistent results, even if you search for the exact same keywords multiple times. Try them out!
3. Be aware that on the Internet, "free" still comes with a price
Many social networks and Internet-based tools (such as search engines) don't require you to pay money to sign up for them or use them. That doesn't mean that they are without a price, though. Using them often means that you are voluntarily allowing the Internet companies that run them services to collect and sell information that you generate from using these services.
Now, this almost never includes sensitive personal or financial information, so don't worry about that. However, it does include your activities in public spaces on the website. These could include clicking on certain hyperlinks, searching for certain keywords, posting a profile or status update, or even just logging onto the website from a particular computer. All of this information can be tracked, collected, and used to sell advertisements on websites for products or services that have something to do with other places that you have been (or other things that you have done) on the Internet.
One way to get around this is to use web browsers and/or search engines that respect your privacy, as we outlined in tips 1 and 2. Another practice that can help, if done occasionally, is deleting various pieces of information that keep track of your Internet activities, such as your browsing history or your tracking cookies. Check out this article on how to clear your cache and browsing history, as well as this one on how to clear your cookies.
4. Know how websites collect and use your information (or don't)
5. Stay in control of your social media presence
Social networks present a special challenge when it comes to Internet privacy. On the one hand, they encourage you to put yourself out there so that you can meet new people and discuss things that are important to you with friends past and present. But this makes it easy to fall into the trap of voluntarily revealing more information about yourself than you would be comfortable with giving out in a different social setting.
The most important thing to remember about social media is this: don't post anything that you wouldn't be comfortable with anyone else (even one or more of your friends) sharing with a wider audience. Yes, social networks often have private content controls and messaging channels (and you should still take advantage of these), but these conventions can only do so much to keep what you post from going public. For the most part, you can't dictate what other people can or can't do on social media, so it only takes one person sharing something that you post for that content to slip out of your control and thus become almost impossible to erase or make private again.
There is plenty of other information on how to better understand and protect your privacy on the Internet at our website, Techboomers.com. In addition to lessons on Internet safety and Internet privacy, we also have over 50 courses on how to safely and easily use some of the hottest websites on the Internet today, from social networks like Facebook and media player services like Netflix to knowledge databases like WebMD and general information tools like Google Maps. Stop on by!