Have you ever been convinced that your devices are listening to what you’re saying? We’ve all been there. Despite popular belief, your gadgets aren’t eavesdropping – but they are tracking everything you’re doing online and creating a hyper-personalized mega profile that advertisers use for targeted marketing.
Here are some of the easiest ways to reduce your digital footprint and take back control of your privacy online.
Privacy vs security: What’s the difference?
While privacy and security are often thought of as synonymous, or used interchangeably, there are actually distinct differences between the two. Security is about protecting your data from being accessed without your consent, whereas privacy is your ability to choose what information you share. Privacy is a bit like sending a message in an envelope versus a postcard that anyone can read. While security is like sending a message in a lockbox that no one else has the key to open.
Privacy is almost always context-sensitive. If you’re talking to your doctor on the phone about a medical condition, for example, you’d probably choose to do so behind a closed door. While other conversations, you’d be happy to have in a public space.
When it comes to online privacy, we’re talking about your ability to choose what information of yours is shared with the website, app, or service you’re using and third parties, like advertisers.
Few businesses are mindful of only asking for the data they need.
Most businesses need some information in order to provide their services, but too many collect more private information than they need and it’s often hard to know what kind of data they’re collecting. Few businesses are mindful of only asking for the data they need.
Below we’ll break down a few services that we all use — web browsers, search engines, email providers and general apps — and how to reclaim your privacy by choosing more privacy-centric options.
Search keyword: privacy
Your search history reveals what you’re thinking, what you’re interested in, where you’re going, and what you’re planning – so when choosing a search engine make sure it’s one that values discretion.
A privacy-focused search engine, like DuckDuckGo or Startpage, only use the keywords provided to deliver search results, meaning everyone who uses the same search term will get the exact same result. By contrast, Google draws on a wealth of collected personal data about the searcher, in addition to the keywords provided, and delivers hyper-personalized results unique to each searcher.
Privacy-focused search engines still make money through advertising, however the ads shown are selected based on the search terms entered, rather than your browser history, cookies, or past searches. That’s because privacy-focused search engines don’t track, or record those.
Rather than quitting Google outright, you can be mindful about what information you’re sharing through search. Perhaps use Google to check sports scores, but use DuckDuckGo to check medical symptoms. The key here is to consider what information you’re comfortable sharing with Google and their third parties.
Choose a browser that prioritizes data privacy
When reviewing your online privacy you should also consider using a private browser like Brave, DuckDuckGo, or Firefox Focus – as other web browsers, like Google Chrome, track far more about you. A private browser will delete your browsing history when your session ends and block trackers, like cookies, that are trying to collect information about your identity. While some trackers can be useful – like browsers remembering login information, shopping carts, language preferences, and more – they are also personal data hoarders.
You may think that using incognito mode in Google Chrome is the equivalent to using a private browser, but it’s not. While true that incognito mode doesn’t save your browsing history, cookies, or form fills on your device – it doesn’t prevent Google from sharing information with advertisers that was collected during an incognito session. That means you could still get targeted ads based on the websites you visited in incognito mode.
By choosing a browser that is privacy focused you’re not only putting your privacy first, but web pages usually load faster.
By choosing a browser that is privacy focused you’re not only putting your privacy first, but web pages usually load faster because they aren’t loading all those trackers – it’s a win-win situation.
Consider a privacy-first email provider
Like browsers, your email is connected to almost everything you do online. You use email to create new accounts, receive receipts, invitations to events, and it holds your important transactions like flight details, medical appointments, your contacts list, and so much more. It’s safe to say that email holds a lot of information about your life.
If the idea of an email service provider knowing what’s going on in your email inbox (even if they say they don’t) and sending you targeted ads based on the information they collect makes you feel a bit icky, then you might want to look for a privacy-first email provider. Free email accounts are paid with your privacy. If you’re not paying for email service, more often than not, you are not the customer, but the product. Advertisers pay for access to information about you.
Email is also used to track people online and associate people to an account – almost every login requires an email address for the username. Email provider Fastmail lets you create unique email addresses for each account login you have. These email aliases let you keep your main address private – so you don’t have to give out your email address to strangers. This is a great way to increase your privacy and security online.
Using an email provider focused on their product and your privacy is a great way to make sure your information remains yours and keep your email ad-free. If you want to learn more about email privacy and the benefits of unique email aliases, check out the latest episode of Random but Memorable, where we spoke with Ricardo Signes, CTO of Fastmail.
Review app setings and permissions
When was the last time you checked the privacy settings on your phone? You’d be surprised by how many services over-step in the information they acquire, versus what they actually need to provide their service. Take ten minutes and review your settings to see which apps have access to your location, camera, microphone, contacts, etc.
If you like sharing on social media, go ahead and share those photos, but consider if apps need access to your camera, microphone, and photo library at all times. And if you find a navigation app useful, use it. But consider adjusting your settings to only track location data when you’re in the app.
Protecting your privacy is about setting boundaries around the information you are comfortable sharing online.
It’s also worth doing a clean-up on the number of apps that you keep on your phone. If it’s an app you no longer use, or use infrequently, consider deleting it from your phone. By limiting the number of apps you’re using, and what you’re sharing with the apps you do use, you’ll reduce your data footprint.
Protecting your privacy is about setting boundaries around the information you are comfortable sharing online. By becoming more deliberate about which browser, search engine, email provider, and apps you share your most important information with, and by switching to privacy-focused alternatives, you can reclaim some of your online privacy.