Online privacy involves more than controlling access to your most personal information. Some of the mundane information you share and things you do online can be used to build a very accurate picture of you, and one over which you have no control.
What you leave behind on the web in Facebook Likes, Twitter favorites, sites visited, transactions completed, photos uploaded, emails sent and more can all be used to create quite a comprehensive profile of who you are, even if you’re careful.
There are ways that you can control what you leave behind. Be aware that it’s not easy. In addition to the tools you can use to gain control over the dossier you leave about yourself online, we’ll show you how you can defeat your efforts, perhaps without realizing it.
How it Works
You can watch this YouTube video for a very thorough, and frightening, breakdown of how your digital profile is created.
Essentially, marketers and government agencies can get a very detailed image of you based on what you do and buy online, and it can create a startlingly accurate picture. That information is routinely shared between various companies and government entities.
You can protect yourself, but be aware that anything you do online can be tracked. Unfortunately, protecting yourself will mean not engaging in some of the most enjoyable forms of online socializing and shopping.
Here are two of the basic tools to use when you’re particularly concerned about security.
TOR, The Onion Router, is one of the most popular privacy solutions out there. It’s trusted by Internet users concerned about their privacy and loathed by the NSA.
TOR anonymizes your traffic by routing it across a series of different servers. The traffic is encrypted, so no one can see where you’re going or what you’re looking at.
The thing to keep in mind with this network is that you have to use it intelligently. TOR only protects your web surfing, and only when using the TOR browser.
If you log into sites or use other resources that leave a footprint, TOR won’t erase those. In addition, Flash and some other technologies might defeat your anonymity. TOR doesn’t protect applications other than its browser, either, so if you torrent or use another app with TOR on, you’re not anonymous.
VPNs encrypt all network traffic going to or coming from your computer. You can also buy routers that give you VPN protection for all connected devices.
Versus TOR, VPNs offer more protection, but they come at a cost. TOR, conversely, is free.
Using TOR and a VPN hides the fact that you’re using TOR, which can be discerned, even though the spying party won’t be able to see what sites you’re looking at on the TOR browser.
Avoiding Self-Defeating Behavior
Remember that all of your persistent logins—Gmail, Facebook, etc.—can provide tracking information, even if you’re on a VPN. If you’re on TOR or a VPN and you log into a service, obviously, the site knows who you are.
Transactions can also give you away. If you use your credit or debit cards online, you are tracked, one way or another. If you want purchasing anonymity, using cash in real life and Bitcoin online are the best options.
It’s likely that you already have a pretty extensive digital profile built up, and no control over who sees it. If you want to minimize the information in it, TOR and a VPN service are good starting points.
A great deal of your information security, however, comes down to behavior. Remember: every time you hit a “Like” button or something similar, that information goes into a database, attached to information about your other behaviors, and your profile grows and grows.