It turns out all those dystopian cyberpunk movies from the ’90s pegged one thing right: The information age where everybody is online also means that the government snoops, corporate spooks, and hackers came to the party too. After a couple of decades of fumbling around with this new social media paradigm, web users are starting to understand that privacy is never a given. Here’s our short guide to being a smarter web citizen.
Limit Your Information
The first and easiest step is to consider that you never have to share every detail of your life online. Google may beg for your mobile phone number so it can help authenticate you – but do they really need it? Twitter may bother you to fill in your birthday, but is it really worth getting a canned birthday greeting from a bot once a year? Learn to be stingy with your data. It’s worth a lot more than you think.
It’s OK To “White Lie”
Next time a website asks you to verify your age, you don’t have to put in your exact birthday. An entry of January 1st for your birth year works just as well. Or if YouTube asks you to answer a survey before it shows you a video, you can just check a box at random. Forums that ask your gender will just have to be happy with the wrong answer sometimes. Try this: Next time you get a new laptop, fire up the browser and type in several searches with a city name you’ve never lived in. Now check around a few websites and notice how many ads assume you live in that city! The point is, there is no law requiring you to tell the truth to anybody but an authority figure. Add some fuzz to the equation sometimes just to throw the data hounds off.
Use Alternative Search Engines
There are several search engines out there which, unlike Google, don’t mine your data for ad targeting. Here are a few examples:
DuckDuckGo – A general-purpose search engine which uses other searches in the background, but strips all the data-mining factors out to deliver clean results. DuckDuckGo has been a fierce defender of online privacy rights ever since its founding. The interface is a clean and simple return to the basics of the web before it was all about monetizing your clicks.
HotBot – An old-school web search engine from the mid-1990s which has stuck to old-fashioned values while still keeping up with modern tech. HotBot’s commitment is to a safer user experience, with a pretty informative security blog on the side. HotBot is also a general-purpose search engine but uses its own indexing tools.
Hot.com – An example of specialized search tools, Hot.com returns adult website results only. Hot.com is another in the line of search engines that don’t mine user data, letting you find dating sites and other adult subjects without worrying whether your most intimate interests are getting compromised.
Every major website, in order to comply with various laws, has to provide you with an option to opt-out of user data collection. You can order them to delete your search and browsing history, and even have them de-list you. Look for these options on any website you use. The more containment you have, the better.
The concept of a firewall is to never use just one password, email, payment method, or device for everything. It’s easier to remember a handful of passwords than to have a unique one for each site, but will still contain damage should one of them get compromised. Likewise, it’s easy to sign up for two or three free email accounts or to download several web browsers and use them interchangeably. Sprinkle your online activity around several sources and profiles, perhaps keeping a set for home and work.
There’s no reason to feel paranoid about online privacy. It’s a real issue that is serious enough to prompt new laws and class action lawsuits. Just as you wouldn’t hand out your social security number to anyone on the street, guarding your online data is simply good personal protection.