Even if you don’t use the internet at all, the digitization of public records databases, local newspapers, and the once-ephemeral ways we communicate with one another mean that you are probably online without even realizing it. Google your name and you’ll likely find links to several people search websites advertising you name, address, phone number, age, and any other information they can scrape from publish sources. If you’re on social networks like LinkedIn or Twitter, your profile will likely show up on page one of your google results. Mentioned in an obituary? Write a letter to the editor of your local newspaper? Your name and your location are easy for anyone to find. And that’s just what other individuals can learn about you. Spend any time at all online, and you’ll notice that the ads you get on google, in your email, from Facebook, are suspiciously well-curated based on what you’ve been browsing that day. This is because advertising companies, data aggregators, and the companies whose products you use are tracking your movements across the web.
All of this sounds pretty bleak, I know. Is it even possible in this climate of data mining, facial recognition software, and giant databases of un-volunteered personal information to regain your privacy online? Luckily, the answer is yes. You can have an online presence and protect it too. But you need the know-how. We’ve outlined a few basic steps below that will put you on the right track to regaining and protecting your privacy online. Be sure to look at the other guides in this handbook for additional steps you can take as well!
1. Stop being tracked by advertisers, data aggregators, and other companies while you browse
Nearly every website in the world is using a third-party service to track you with uniquely identifying cookies and web bugs, and even “Like” buttons. If you’re not blocking these trackers, your online behavior is being funneled from every website you go to to a few big analytics companies, the most common of which is Google.
The best way to block these trackers is the free Ghostery plugin (http://www.ghostery.com/), which is available for all major browsers. It not only blocks the trackers, but also gives you the option of seeing what it’s blocking as you browse from one site to the next.
If you want to block all types of tracking, not just third-party web bugs, you’ll have to enable your browser’s Private Browsing (or in Google Chrome, Incognito) Mode through the browser settings. Keep in mind that Private Browsing is imperfect.
2. Manage the content you put on the web
Whether you run a full scale blog, or just dabble in Pinterest, you’re revealing more than you think when you post content to the web. If privacy and maintaining anonymity are your goal, make sure that none of your posts reveal key data such as your city, your age, or your last name. Any one of these data points coupled with your first name is likely enough to identify you on the internet. If you have an active web presence that involves interacting with people you’ve only met online, pay particular attention to step 4 of this guide, “Remove your information from people search sites”. This is especially important because even if you choose to be identifiable on the web, there’s no reason your audience should have your home address or phone number. Likewise, check out our guide to managing social media—statistically, this is where most personal information gets unintentionally leaked.
3. Privacy-Friendly And Anonymous Services
Most services on the Internet have a profit-oriented attitude towards your personal information. If it’s a good business decision to sell your data, they will tend towards that over time. If giving your information to the government is the path of least resistance, they’ll do that too.
There are, however, a small but significant group of websites out there that make your personal privacy their top priority. If you really care about the privacy of your personal information, you should consider switching from mainstream services to some of these:
- Web Search – Popular search engines like Google and Bing track all of your searches and other on-site behavior, and link it to your uniquely identifying cookies and IP address. Consider using a pro-privacy search engine like DuckDuckGo or ixquick, which go out of their way to avoid tracking you in any way.
- Email – Popular email services like Gmail and Yahoo! Mail also don’t place a premium on user privacy. In addition to personally identifying and tracking you, these services frequently employ third parties to process your emails. Consider using a Remailer or private email service like Hushmail to which keep your email anonymous and encrypted. Even if you’re not ready to switch to one of those services, take some time to review your email client’s security settings.
- Other services and options – There are privacy-friendly alternatives for every major service you can think of, whether it’s hosting a website or making VoIP calls.
4. Remove your information from people search sites and private databases
Chances are that your personal information, employment history, and criminal record are all searchable from dozens of people search databases. Most of these sites have an opt out process, which you can find by looking at the “Guides” section of this handbook. You can also sign up for Safe Shepherd, which automates the whole process for the most notorious sites.
5. Go the extra mile with encryption and anonymity tools
Anything you send through the Internet that’s not encrypted can potentially be snooped on by hackers (and, of course, the NSA). The good news is that there is usually a secure, encrypted way to conduct any important online task.
Most popular websites have a secure version (look for https:// instead of http://) that will encrypt your communications while you’re on that site. You can ensure that you always use the secure version of a website with the HTTPS Everywhere plugin from the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
For those with a technical bent interested in going the full mile, check out the Tor Project which can anonymize and encrypt all your online activity. A free, communal service, it’s used by people trying to maintain private communications in the US and by those protesting dictatorships in China and the Middle East.