How To Keep Your Data Private Online

The moment you hop online, you lose a little privacy. How much depends on what you’re doing and what steps you’ve put in place to protect your privacy. The reality is that any online activity will generate data. As you surf, bank, and shop, data gets created. From there, other parties collect, analyze, and sometimes sell or share that data with others.

The most notable example of this is, of course, social media. Social media companies gather hosts of data and personal information about their users in exchange for free use of their platforms. Yet similar data collection happens far more broadly online. Internet service providers (ISPs) will often gather browsing data and information about their users. Some search engines will also gather information about their users, their searches, and where those searches take them. Another high-value form of data collection entails location tracking. App creators, ISPs, cell phone companies, and others will pair what you’re doing online with where and when you’re doing it.

Understanding the Value of Your Data

Make no mistake that all this data has value. Whether it gets collected for advertising purposes, or to generate profit by selling data to others, your privacy has a price tag on it. Yet you have some say in all this. You can take several steps that can minimize the data trail that you create by going online. Put simply, you can take control of your privacy online.

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Although data creation and collection naturally come with using the Internet, you can take several steps to make you and your data more private. Some of it comes down to behavior, while other steps involve settings and technologies that help cover your tracks. Here are 10 ways you can stay more private online:

1. Be More Selective with Your Social Media Settings

Social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram, and others give you the option of making your profile and posts visible to friends only. Choosing this setting keeps the broader internet from seeing what you’re doing, saying, and posting—not to mention your relationships and likes. Put another way, keeping your profile public makes it searchable by search engines. Your profile is out there for anyone to see.

Taking a “friends only” approach to your social media profiles can help protect your privacy because that gives a possible scammer or stalker significantly less material to work with. Yet further, some platforms allow you to create sub-groups of friends and followers. With a quick review of your network, you can create a subgroup of your most trusted friends and restrict your posts to them as needed.

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2. Review Your Privacy Settings for the Devices and Platforms You Use

Different devices and platforms will have their own privacy settings, so give them a look and see what your options are. For example, Facebook offers an entire page dedicated to privacy settings and offers a Privacy Checkup as well.

As for devices, Windows and Mac OS have extensive privacy controls available. Android provides visual guides on the topic, and Apple has a similar resource for iOS users as well. A quick search about privacy on any device, platform, or app should turn up some helpful results that can get you started if you have questions.

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3. Check out the Privacy Policies for the Apps You Use

Privacy policies spell out what data a company might be collecting, for what purposes, what they do with it, and if they might share or otherwise sell it to third parties. The language in privacy policies can get somewhat long and complex. However, several companies have been making good faith efforts to explain their privacy policies in plain language on user-friendly websites.

Google provides a good example of this, which includes a link to their Privacy Checkup experience. Additionally, Apple offers users on iOS 15.2 or higher an app privacy report that shows what iPhone features and data apps have recently accessed. Once again, a web search will help point you to similar resources for the devices, platforms, and apps you use.

Dig Deeper: What Personal Data Do Companies Track?

4. Disable Location Sharing in Your Apps

Location tracking has become a prominent form of data collection. Smartphone applications are usually the prime culprits. Thankfully, you can easily disable the location-sharing feature on an app-by-app basis. Some apps allow you to enable location services only when in use, while for others, you can entirely disable location services. An alternative option is to set the app to ask for permission each time. This is an effective way to find out if any apps are using location services without your knowledge. For iPhone users, this can be found in Settings > Privacy & Security > Location Services. Android users can go to Settings > Locations > App Location Permissions.

Deactivating location sharing in your apps doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll stop seeing location-based ads. Advertisers often guess your general location by looking at your internet connection. They might not know your exact address, but they can get a pretty good idea of which city or town you’re in.

5. Deactivate Your Old Accounts—And Delete Their Data

If you’ve been using the internet for a while, you likely have several old accounts that you no longer use or have forgotten about. Old accounts may still contain your personal data, exposing it to potential hackers or cyber thieves. It’s advisable to close any old accounts that you no longer need. Before doing this, ensure that you delete as much personal data from them as possible.

Deleting an account is often more complicated than simply not using it anymore. In many cases, you’ll have to contact the company or service provider to close your account. If you can’t find information on how to delete your account, a quick web search can often lead you to step-by-step instructions.

McAfee Pro Tip: Your online presence expands as you create more internet accounts, and these accounts may potentially be leveraged by data brokers or third parties to gain access to your personal data. Improve your data security by erasing unused or old accounts to eliminate public-facing information. Know how to delete old accounts containing personal information

6. Use a VPN

Virtual Private Networks (VPN) can significantly enhance your online privacy. A VPN encrypts your internet connection, making it harder for third parties to track your online activities or capture your personal information. While connected to a VPN, your ISP can only see that you’re connected to a VPN server, but not what websites you visit or what data you’re transferring.

Besides protecting your data, VPNs can also prevent websites and online services from tracking your physical location. This can be particularly useful if you’re accessing the internet in a region with stringent internet censorship or if you want to access region-locked content.

7. Clean Up Your Personal Data Trail

Many people are surprised when they Google themselves and see how much information about them is publicly available. Data brokers collect information from various sources and make it available to anyone willing to pay for it. This can include personal information, such as your home address, estimated income, shopping habits, and more.

Fortunately, you can take steps to clean up your personal data trail. Start by Googling yourself to find out what information about you is publicly available. Next, contact the websites or data brokers that publish this information and request them to remove it. Several online services can help you with this process by automating it and making it more efficient.

Dig Deeper: How Data Brokers Sell Your Identity

Final Thoughts

Online privacy is a serious concern in today’s digital age. While it’s impossible to completely avoid data collection, there are numerous steps you can take to protect your personal data and make your online activities more private. These include being strategic with your social media settings, regularly reviewing your privacy settings, understanding the privacy policies of the apps you use, disabling location sharing, deactivating old accounts, using a VPN, and cleaning up your personal data trail. For added protection, use a comprehensive security solution such as McAfee+ Ultimate, which comes with features like password manager, antivirus software, and firewall protection; users can efficiently navigate the internet while avoiding online threats.

Whether we admit it or not, a significant portion of our privacy is within our control. By becoming more aware of what data we share and who we share it with, we can make decisions that protect our privacy. In an era where data is the new oil, taking steps to safeguard our digital privacy is more important than ever.

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