In today’s data-driven world, there is no end to the number of individuals and organizations who are eager to get whatever data they can from you. Even the most privacy-conscious individual can quickly become overwhelmed by the onslaught of privacy-threats that we face on a near-daily basis. Knowing what someone can do with your IP address is enough to drive you crazy.
Ultimately, you need to take responsibility for the security of your own data. As we have all seen in recent years, even the biggest corporations can fall prey to data breaches. By following some simple best practices, you can massively reduce the chances of your data falling into the wrong hands.
Many of us use cloud storage to back up our most important files, but it is important not to rely entirely on these services. Lots of online services seem like they will always be there - until they’re not. Google, for example, is one of the most popular cloud storage providers out there, but they have a long history of shutting down various services prematurely.
It’s therefore vital that you maintain your own backups of your most important data. Ideally, you should aim to keep offline backups of your most important cloud files so you aren’t entirely dependent on access to a particular service to get at them.
Whenever you hand over personal data to an online service or website, make sure that you understand exactly who is going to be able to view it. In the case of social media services and similar websites, you have a high degree of control over who has permission to access your data. If you need to send sensitive files or information to other people, consider password-protecting the files.
Reading privacy policies isn’t exactly fun for most people, but they will either give you a clear picture of how your data will be used or they will let you know that the service can’t be trusted.
If you are responsible for other people’s data, it is up to you to make sure that it is only available to those with a need to access it.
Both VPNs and proxies can significantly improve your online privacy and security, adding an extra layer of security between you and the internet. Both of these services work according to the same principle - by adding an intermediary server between the user and the website they want to connect to, it’s possible for users to both obscure their own IP address and use an IP address from a specific region.
When you normally connect to an online service, your device will hand over its IP address as part of the process of establishing a connection. By connecting via a VPN or proxy and sending all of your requests to the website via the service, you never have to directly communicate with the webserver, keeping your IP hidden.
If the server that you connect through is located in another country, you will be able to use it to browse the internet as if you are doing so from that country. This makes VPNs and proxies ideal for circumventing geo-blocking as well as obscuring your location.
When it comes to looking after your sensitive personal data, some businesses are better than others. At one end of the spectrum, you have Facebook - a business who just can’t stop innovating when it comes to finding ways of invading your privacy. At the other, there are countless services like Mastodon that trade heavily on their reputations for maintaining user privacy and security in an open source structure.
For most common online services that you use, there will be a privacy-focused alternative. For example, instead of using Google for your online searches, you could switch to DuckDuckGo. Similarly, there is a growing number of Facebook alternatives that don’t trade their users’ data. Some of these ask users to pay instead, but others are seeking more novel approaches to making sustainable privacy-focused social media platforms.
It should be noted that no system is perfect. The only way of ensuring that your personal data can’t ever fall into the wrong hands is to never put it online, to begin with. There is always some level of risk and every time you submit personal information anywhere, there will be some kind of trade-off.
There are a whole host of free ad blocking add-ons available for all major internet browsers. These ad blockers do exactly what the name suggests - they prevent ads from loading on webpages. Malicious code can be embedded in online ads with relative ease. A silver lining of the highly-concentrated nature of the online advertising industry is that only a small number of providers need to be screening their ads to limit the proliferation of malicious ads.
However, malicious ads do slip through the net, especially as they become more sophisticated in nature. There will always be the occasional website or blog using custom ads, or one of the lesser-known providers. If you, or someone else on the same computer, use an out-of-date web browser that is missing recent security updates, browser exploits can be used to install keyloggers or access the file system.
You can go one step further and add the NoScript extension to your browser. This will disable all scripts and media until you add sites to your whitelist. It’s not as difficult as it sounds - when you first land on a site, you only need to click a few buttons and it will be trusted. However, if you do a lot of hopping around different websites, it will prevent scripts from executing without your permission.
Keeping your data safe online is more difficult today than it used to be, but it is still doable. Most data security is a case of common sense - as long as you remember that every piece of personal information that you hand over could potentially end up leaking and you take measures to minimize that potential, you will be safe from the most common breaches.