Ensure your privacy online with these tips

Last Updated May 2019

Although popular internet sites like Gmail and Facebook deliver highly personalized experiences, the services they offer are anything but private. Free online services like email and social media survive by collecting and selling your data: your browsing history, your web searches, and even the content you stream. And in 2017, the U.S. Congress voted to allow ISPs to track and sell customer browsing data — so at this point, it’s safe to assume that all of your online activity is tracked and catalogued.

Thankfully, with a few key steps, you can keep your browsing data private and limit what information advertisers can track. Here are the two first steps you can take to maintain your privacy online.

Use a virtual private network (VPN)

Virtual private networks, better known as VPNs, are the most popular method of maintaining online privacy. A VPN is a service you sign up for that installs software on any device; the software encrypts and directs all of your traffic before sending it through the VPN server, so your ISP is unable to see what sites you’re visiting.

For example, with a VPN on your smartphone, you could install your provider’s VPN app and turn it on, and from that point forward, your ISP would only see traffic between your phone and your VPN provider. Furthermore, every site you visit would see you as an anonymous visitor.

With that in mind, there are three key things to know about VPN services:

  • Your VPN provider will be able to see all of your internet traffic, so it’s important to find a reputable one. As you’re comparing VPN services, pay close attention to user reviews, and make sure that the service you sign up with doesn’t keep logs of any kind.
  • Free VPN services are a huge risk. You may see some “free” VPN services as you’re comparing your options. Stay away from them. Free VPN service providers, because they’re free, generally don’t have a lot of accountability to customers, and their business model generally relies on — you guessed it — selling your browsing data.
  • Not all websites are VPN-friendly. Some websites will be able to detect that you’re using a VPN, and they may not give you access unless you disconnect from the VPN first. In most cases, this is a good thing: access limitations on accounts like your bank account are usually good for security. But for everyday browsing, it can be a pain. There’s generally not a lot you can do about which sites will work with a VPN, but to minimize your risks, make sure you’re using a VPN that encrypts and routes your traffic through servers in the states (as traffic that appears foreign is more likely to face problems).
     

There are hundreds of VPN services available, so do your research before signing up. The most popular VPN services are Private Internet Access, NordVPN, and ExpressVPN. Don’t forget to look for coupons ahead of time, as they frequently offer special discounts.

If you’re worried about what information your web browser may have already collected about you, you can clear its cache to delete all of your browsing history and cookies. To do this, go into your browser’s settings menu and find the option to clear all of your browsing data; for best results, do this on a regular basis.

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Install a browser extension that disables ad-based tracking

Most websites leave behind files in your web browser called “cookies.” Cookies log information about your visits and can be used to track your browsing habits or the other sites you visit. Browser cookies are a bit of a double-edged sword: site personalization and “remember me”-type features rely on cookies, but they also can report browsing data to any site or service that has access, which isn’t great for your privacy.

To minimize how much of your online activity is tracked by browser cookies, install a browser extension that blocks websites from leaving any cookies or tracking technologies behind. By disabling ad-based tracking, you greatly limit what information advertisers can see about you, and you’re ensuring no more information is collected.

The most common browser extensions for doing this are uBlock Origin, Privacy Badger, and Ghostery. Keep in mind that you only need to install one, and you may run into issues trying to run more than one simultaneously.

Conclusion

Protecting your privacy online isn’t just a good idea — it’s a necessity to make sure your private data and online habits don’t fall into the wrong hands. But with a VPN and an extension to disable ad tracking, you can enjoy the web without having to worry about who may be following you around.

Written by:
  • Jaime
    Jaime
    Writer