July 5th, 2018

How to Protect Online Data as a User


The online world has become quite the scary place. With a Cambridge Analytica whistleblower describing just how much personal information can be harvested from Facebook, the world is in a frenzy when it comes to the topic of data privacy.

What may come as another surprise to the majority of people is that data harvesting is not new, it is not against the law and people often give permission for it to happen.

This permission, which is often unknowingly given, is why online data has gotten so out of control. People start scrolling through a site and now they’ve signed their lives away, figuratively speaking… in most cases. So to prevent digital trackers from collecting personal information, here are some tips.

Strong Protection

The most secure solution is one that users likely aren’t willing to pursue because it seems too complicated, and that is the Tor browser.

To start, browsers are the access points that allow user devices to connect to the internet. The most popular browsers include: Chrome, Firefox, Safari and Internet Explorer. These browsers all have different rules and securities in place to prevent personal information from being collected, but these rules and securities, such as the “Do Not Track” feature, tend to be more of guidelines rather than concrete fixes. Thus, making it easy for web cookies to still collect personal information.

The Tor browser, however, “protects you by bouncing your communications around a distributed network of relays run by volunteers all around the world: it prevents somebody watching your Internet connection from learning what sites you visit, it prevents the sites you visit from learning your physical location, and it lets you access sites which are blocked.” Unfortunately though, even Tor has come under attack by trackers, so it is important that if users opt for the Tor solution, they need to not install any extensions or plugins.

Combine Tor with a virtual private network (VPN), which bounces your IP address (location) around the globe, and users will feel what it means to be digitally secure.

Mild Protection

Users can also opt to install extensions or plugins on their browsers.

Adblock Plus is among the most downloaded extensions; it prevents annoying and unwanted ads from being displayed to users as they surf the web.

Ghostery is another extension users should have; it displays all of the tracking cookies on every webpage a user visits, giving the user the option to select which tracking cookies are allowed and which are not. The downside of blocking tracking cookies though, is the user will likely run into problems on major sites that require users to agree to a cookie policy.

Privacy Badger and Disconnect are more extension options users can use to keep websites from tracking them across the web.

The only problem with taking the extension approach though, is it helps websites using device fingerprinting more easily identify a browser as being unique. Thus, making it easier for sites with fingerprinting code to identify a user’s device.

Recommendation

If a user really wants to be off the grid, going dark is the best route. Using the Tor browser in its default settings combined with VPN, is the best way to secure online demographic information (location, age, gender).

If a user doesn’t mind some sites obtaining information about him or her, the mild protection option is the way to go.

It is important to keep in mind, any site a user logs into, regardless of browser or extensions, will get the user’s personal data that is shared within the site. Tor and extensions do prevent such sites from tracking user data across multiple web pages though.

The ultimate method for protecting online data is for users to actually read the Terms & Services Agreements and Cookie Policies. As these are lengthy legal documents, it’s unlikely this will happen, so perhaps, websites and apps should take the higher ground and make their Terms & Services Agreements / Cookie Policies more user friendly while also providing options to users to agree to rather than forcing them to agree to the entire document.

Here’s another friendly extension that helps determine the trustworthiness of a Terms & Services agreement: Terms of Service; Didn’t Read.

Good luck out there; stay safe!

 

 

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