Concerned about Internet privacy? Here’s how to avoid a digital trail

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Have you ever been on Facebook or Instagram and seen an ad oddly relevant to you? If so, you may be worried about your digital footprint: what information do you give out? Who is watching it? What do apps, organizations and even governments know about you? If you are an avid social media user and/or deal with sensitive issues in your personal life, you may be concerned about how you might be tracked online and how your activity might be used against you. In this article, I’ll list a few ways to avoid leaving a digital trail – but first, it’s important to understand how a digital trail is created in the first place. Here’s how it goes:

  • Web monitoring: Everything you do on the internet is tracked. Your search history, your location, the apps you install, the content you interact with – it all serves as a data point in services like recommendation systems and fraud detection. If you are someone struggling with mental health issues, you may seek therapy, psychiatric medication, or potential complications. You can also Google for symptoms that indicate depression or anxiety. You may (inadvertently) share information about your issues on social media or through messaging apps. All this forms a digital track; a tracking company or application, you can use and sell this information.

  • Smart monitoring and user profiling: Recent trends in machine learning have made user profiling extremely powerful. Models can now determine who can like which products and in which colors and sizes. There are algorithms in place that systematically calculate the odds of a user falling prey to certain marketing tactics or being susceptible to certain issues. A company that has access to enough information about you may be able to “predict” when you are pregnant, what your tendencies are, or even what your sexual orientation is. This can be used to personalize the advertisements you receive or even place you on certain watchlists.

So how do you avoid leaving a digital trace? Follow these valuable tips below:

Share intelligently on social networks

Pay attention to the things you post on your Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. If you ask about health issues, be careful who your messages are visible to. Regularly review your friends and followers and keep your privacy settings up. As a general rule, avoid posting about sensitive issues or information that you don’t want to share with anyone. Even if you post it to a private group and have the most restrictive privacy settings, your friends and followers might not be able to – they might share it with their network or their accounts might be compromised.

Related: Safeguarding Digital Identities: Why Data Privacy Should Matter to You (and Your Business)

Turn off location tracking

Many apps use your location for better recommendations and to detect fraud (for example, an unusual credit card transaction). Google Maps often saves the places you have visited. Other apps (like Snapchat and Instagram) may also passively use your location in the background. Be sure to review location permissions in your phone’s settings and turn them off regularly for all apps.

Research in anonymous mode

When browsing the internet, I suggest you always browse anonymously or incognito. This ensures that your searches are not saved in browser history. Friends, family, or even law enforcement who gain access to your phone won’t be able to verify the search terms you’ve entered or the pages you’ve visited. No cookies (tracking items placed by websites on your computer or phone) are kept – so these websites cannot track you. This prevents a website from profiling you and tracking your activity across different websites. One important thing to remember is that although your activity is not visible to other computer users, your Internet Service Provider (ISP) can still see and log what you are doing.

Use VPN services

A VPN service like NordVPN or ExpressVPN keeps your activity private and allows you to hide your IP address when using the Internet. Your ISP or the websites you visit can no longer track you based on your IP (they may still log the IP, but it won’t really be yours!). You can change your IP address as often as you like. Since the location is determined by a reverse lookup of the IP address, this also effectively hides your location. It will also allow you to access geo-restricted content – if your state or country decides to block information on certain topics, you can choose an IP address from another state and then access this content.

Related: You’re probably being followed online right now. Here’s how to protect yourself

Use encrypted messaging

If you share sensitive information with your friends, be sure to share it through a secure messaging app. Apps like WhatsApp are end-to-end encrypted, which means that these messages cannot be intercepted and decoded, even by governments. Better yet, use an app like Signal, which allows messages to “disappear” after a set time. Signal and WhatsApp can be downloaded and used for free.

Send documents using links

Often you want to share documents or medical reports with someone, and once you send them in an email or chat, they can potentially be used against you. If you want to send a document to someone, first upload it to a secure cloud service like Google Drive, OneDrive, or Dropbox. These services allow you to generate secure links to share with specific people. Once the other person has viewed the file, you can deactivate the link. Once disabled, clicking on the link leads nowhere. If you want to take it a step further, use a URL shortener like BitLy or TinyURL to generate a short, nondescript link that even hides the website you’re connecting to.

Use disposable email addresses

Many websites require you to register with an email address to access content. If you find yourself on such a website, do not use your real email address for verification – use a disposable email address. Websites like TempMail allow you to generate email addresses and receive emails there for a short period of time. You can create as many as you want and use a different one each time. This way you avoid sharing your real email – if the website ever gets hacked, your identity won’t be exposed.

Related: How to be invisible online – without leaving the network (infographic)

Although it is almost impossible to guarantee complete anonymity on the Internet, these techniques should provide a good starting point. Also, be sure to follow other digital hygiene best practices: choose long and random passwords, don’t share or reuse passwords, and don’t click on suspicious or unknown links.

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