5 simple tips to significantly improve your online privacy

online privacy

Protecting our online privacy is becoming increasingly challenging. From the U.S. government rolling back regulations that prevent ISPs from selling your browsing history to massive data breaches like Equifax and Yahoo, the threat to our digital privacy is something we should all be taking seriously.

Here are five simple tips that anyone can implement to significantly improve their online privacy.

Use 2-factor authentication

2-factor authentication, or 2FA, for short, means you effectively have to provide two forms of ID before being granted access to your account. For example, one factor will likely be your password, while the second might make you input a code that’s texted to your mobile device. This additional layer of security ensures figuring out your password alone won’t be enough for someone to break into your accounts.

Around 80% of major online services offer 2FA, and yet, according to a recent report, only 28% of people currently take advantage of it. When you set up a new account, you’ll likely be prompted about whether you want to activate 2FA. You should also look back at your older, existing accounts and update those too. These include your online banking account, your healthcare account, and any other accounts that may house sensitive information.

Ensure all your devices are up to date

We know the drill: Update your devices to ensure you have the latest security software installed. Yet, many of us don’t get around to updating in a timely fashion or simply forget to update at all. When major security threats are discovered—like the recent Spectre and Meltdown flaws—companies rush to deliver updates that will protect the online privacy of their customers. Get in the habit of checking for new updates on a regular basis.

And we’re not just talking about your phone or computer. Devices like your baby monitor, your video doorbell, your Amazon Echo, your smart TV, and countless other devices on the market, pose just as much of a privacy threat. Check your apps or the company’s website and make sure they’re running the latest firmware.

online privacy

Be careful what you post

The average person spends nearly two hours per day on social media sites like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, translating to a staggering five years and four months over an average lifetime. What’s more, the messages we post are often visible to everyone, and the reality is, anyone can be watching. A common case is when people share when they’re leaving for vacation; you’re basically letting burglars know that they have free rein in your house. We also post pictures of our kids, we share our exact location, and let everyone know what we had for dinner and at which restaurant.

If you ask former NSA contractor-turned-whistleblower Edward Snowden, he will tell you to avoid sites like Facebook entirely, noting that its data protection and online privacy controls are not yet up to par. That might not be realistic for most, but it’s a good reminder that we should all be more vigilant.

Look through your privacy settings: Stop sharing your location whenever you post (this is common on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and more). Make any accounts where you send personal information like photos private. And, generally, use common sense before you tweet. If we don’t take precautions, it remains easy for a criminal to build a fake profile simply by scouring through our social media posts.

Use a VPN

A VPN, or virtual private network, effectively provides a secure “tunnel” for your data to travel through, meaning your internet activities are invisible. By manipulating your IP address, a VPN uses encryption to make you appear as if your online browsing is deriving from a different computer, in a different location, or even a different country. VPNs are an important tool for at home browsing or when in the office, but they’re perhaps most crucial when connected to an unsecured public WiFi network, like at a restaurant, or in a cafe, at a hotel, or in the airport. It’s locations like these where cybercriminals feast out on unsuspecting victims. A VPN remains the most secure way to protect your information from prying eyes.

As an added bonus, VPNs also make it tough for marketers to spam you with retargeting ads. Do you get plagued by ads from the same product, chasing you around the web no matter which sites you visit? By using VPN, it can help eliminate this issue entirely, without requiring you to erase your web browser’s cookies.

VPNs are also easy to use. Just download a secure and trusted VPN like Hotspot Shield and install it on both your mobile device and computers. From there, all you have to do is hit the “connect” button and your internet activity is protected.

Invest in identity theft protection

Implementing every security measure is great, but the fact is, it remains impossible to ensure 100% online privacy protection. As we saw with the Equifax breach, you could have done everything right from an online privacy perspective only to find your sensitive information stolen. By investing in an identity theft protection service, you can monitor and be alerted of any changes to your credit in real-time. For instance, if someone opened a credit card account in your name, you’ll know about it instantly and can close the account before any major damage is done. Identity theft protection services typically cost around $10 per month.

If that sounds too steep, or if you’d like to try monitoring it yourself for free, you could always utilize apps like Credit Karma. There, you can get access to your credit score for free and review all open accounts and recent activity. In this case, the onus is on you to be diligent and routinely check for anything suspicious. If you combine this with a consistent scouring of your bank statement, you can discover any issues as they arise. Don’t forget to do this for your children, too; 1.3 million kids have their identities stolen each year, with 50% under the age of six. Many times, these cases go unnoticed for upwards of 15 years.

Like 2017, online privacy concerns are sure to be a major focus in 2018. In all likelihood, the next big data breach is right around the corner, and our government continues to strip regulations that protect citizens from ISPs and other major corporations. With more time being spent online, new opportunities emerge for cybercriminals. Now is the time to take digital online privacy into our own hands, and as these tips prove, you don’t have to be a tech-whizz to do it.

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