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Your Guide to Online Privacy: Separating Facts from Myths

Many people today are concerned with their privacy online. There are all kinds of stories out there about people having a conversation with friends and suddenly finding ads on Facebook about what they discussed, or peoples personal information being leaked online in retaliation for an argument on social media. These can be frightening prospects to think that a faceless stranger could get their hands on this kind of information without you knowing. While you may be waiting for legislation to change how companies handle your information, or believe you'll never fall victim to a malicious stranger, its best to know what to do, and what myths to avoid, to protect yourself online.


Did you know that according to some studies, 83% of Americans have seen target ads? Targeted ads mean the ad was delivered to you because the ad provider knew you either talked about, shopped for, or viewed a site about what's in the ad? Another startling fact is that as of 2020, about 41% of kids between 8 and 17 had public profiles, which means anyone online could see them according to securitytoday.com. So what should you do to protect your data?


Lets start off by stating a simple fact, there is no 100% sure fire way to completely protect your privacy online, period. Anyone who tells you otherwise is likely trying to sell you a product that wont live up to the claims. That being said, if you take the right steps you can balance privacy and usability of your apps and sites online. The reason I say balance is because if you use apps and websites, some information will be shared and that is unavoidable as it is simply how the internet works at its most basic level, but that doesn't mean you have to give all your information over for free either.


VPNs


One of the most commonly advertised, and commonly misunderstood, tools to stay private online are Virtual Private Networks, aka VPNs. These are great tools that we do highly recommend people use to stay private online, but often times the amount of privacy they promise is a bit overstated.


To start lets explain how they work. VPNs work by encrypting traffic between your computer and whatever site and app you're accessing from end to end. So to put that in more real world terms, imagine you want to send your friend a package, you would want it enclosed and protected right? Well that's exactly what a VPN does, it hides the contents of your internet traffic as they move from your computer across the web to their destination.


Sounds great right? Your 100% protected online! Except, not exactly. While this does hide the contents from anyone who may be trying to look in on what your doing between you and your destination, it doesn't hide the information on your computer or at the destination. Before you send it and after they receive it, it is no longer encrypted. Just like a package, when the recipient opens it and sets it on the kitchen table, anyone in the house can see it.


This is just like how a VPN works, once the information arrives at its destination its no longer hidden from view. You may also hear about "No logs" policies from many VPN providers stating that they will never keep a log of your traffic. While this may be true, chances are there are a bunch of loopholes to this "policy" that allow them and certain third parties access.


So while we highly recommend using a VPN, especially on public wi-fi or for sensitive data such as financial transactions, just keep in mind what they really do compared to what your favorite youtuber or blogger claims they do. Its also worth noting that not all VPN's are equal. Generally speaking free VPNs will come with less security and more ads than paid VPNs as they have to get funding from somewhere. Just remember if you aren't paying for the product, you are the product.


TOR (Recommended for advanced users only!)


You may or may not have heard of TOR, the deep web, or .onion sites, but these were commonly thought, and sometimes still are thought, to be the most hidden, wild west style version of the internet out there. While there is a grain of truth to that, it is, once again, not 100% foolproof, and often comes with one very large downside many people don't know about going in. It is extremely slow. So what is TOR and how does it work?


Well TOR was a community led project to make a secure and private way to browse free from prying eyes. It works by bouncing your internet traffic across various "nodes" or computers before finally popping out at the other end. Not only that it does so by sending your traffic through multiple paths at once increasing the difficulty in tracking exactly where its going. This is why its so much slower than a standard browser, because there are a lot of extra steps to hide what you are doing. On top of this certain sites ending in .onion, are only accessible through these browsers, keeping them completely hidden from anyone who doesn't use TOR.


So surely this will keep you 100% private right? There is also the other risks that come on the .onion network as it is very popular among some of the less savory types on the internet which could allow you to stumble into disturbing or even outright illegal material. There is also a greater chance of finding your information stolen if you go to a malicious site on the TOR network.


Well that sounds scary right? Yes, and it is, but that said TOR can also be a great tool, if you know what you're doing. I would definitely not recommend it for the average user, or every day use, but you may find it useful in certain instances where you need the utmost privacy and security and know exactly what your goal is going in. I also advise checking out .onion sites with extreme caution. While there are many great .onion sites out there, there are just as many malicious and illegal sites that could lead to trouble, so use this one with caution. It is important to keep in mind that many .onion sites could land you with serious legal or ethical issues, so remember that before making a choice to venture to these hidden sites.


App Settings


In today's world we all use apps, and chances are when you install one you give it permissions it asks for and never think about it again. This could be problematic down the road as the permissions you give the app could allow it to access all kinds of information that isn't needed for it to function.


Remember the example of discussing something with a friend only to find ads on Facebook about it later? Well that usually occurs because the Facebook app has permissions to your microphone, which even though your phone was in your pocket, recorded your conversation and sent it to Facebook, which in turn used an algorithm to determine things you discussed to feed you personalized ads.


Many modern apps do need certain permissions to function, such as an game that wants to access your camera and microphone but doesn't use pictures or sound to play, but they may also ask for other permissions that seem odd for what they do. In these cases we recommend only allowing permissions the app requires to work, and if your phone allows it, only allowing those permissions when the app is actually in use and not in the background. By doing this you can still use your favorite apps without allowing them to spy on everything you do.


While this spying is usually only used for ad purposes and likely never seen or heard by a human, you never know, and its always better to be safe than sorry. Its always a good idea to check permissions before installing any app and occasionally going through and auditing what apps have which permissions on your phone. Read your phones manual or visit the manufacture website for exact steps on how to review your app permissions on your specific device. Check out this blog for some tips on this, while its geared towards parents, these tips are good to keep in mind for anyone using apps.


Public Browsing


One thing you may have not really considered has nothing to do with malicious websites, viruses, or spying apps, but simply the people physically around you. Let's face it, laptops and phones can be found every where in the modern world. Whether your at the coffee shop, grocery store, or public park, you will likely see someone staring at a screen, and you may even be that someone. In general, you wont be alone in these places either, and likely don't know the majority of people around you.


In these cases it's good to keep in mind that anybody could come up and see what is displayed on your screen. While this is widely considered extremely rude, we all know that not everyone follows societal norms. Generally speaking, as long as you're not doing anything sensitive such as putting in your credit card information, or discussing that rash with your doctor, it probably wont lead to a leak of information you want to protect. It's simply best to keep in mind that if you wouldn't discuss it in a public setting knowing people around you may over hear, you probably shouldn't access it electronically in public either.


You may also want to consider what you are looking at as it may be a social taboo or cause issues with people around you. For instance, you probably shouldn't be reading about charged political topics or hot button issues in public view as this could spark unwanted attention in a public setting. Another option are screen protectors or privacy filters that only allow the screen to be viewed form a specific angle helping to minimize the effects of "should surfing" and keeping many prying eyes from seeing what you are doing.



So we discussed VPNs, TOR, App Settings and Public browsing so that you have the knowledge you need to make an informed decision about your privacy online. VPNs encrypt your data while it moves from your computer to the site or app, TOR hides you from prying eyes by bouncing traffic all over the place to keep you from being traced while allowing you to visit a hidden version of the internet with few if any rules protecting your data as you browse. You learned about App permissions to balance your privacy and usability on your phone as well as how to protect yourself in public so that others aren't eavesdropping on your online activities.


While these are just a handful of the most common tools, tips, and tricks there are many ways to stay private online. The trick is finding the proper balance of privacy and usability. Not everyone needs to keep their online presence locked down to the point of an Area 51 style security seal but it's generally best to not make it easy for companies and bad actors to glean ever bit of information about you either. So when thinking about what tools and steps are right for you, consider how much privacy you want compared to how much usability you're willing to sacrifice. After all it is your information and you should be the one who determines the who, how, and where it is used.




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