How to Protect Your Privacy Online

Credit: Tim Robberts / Getty Images

You've heard it before: Nothing is private on the Internet. But there are some basic things you can do to protect yourself and keep a lid on your digital data. Right now, companies and marketers are clamoring to know things like what kinds of websites you visit, what you like to buy, read, and listen to — all so they can sell stuff to you. And on top of that, your current or future employer might be checking in on your recent posts and online activity. With that in mind, follow the easy tips below to shore up your digital privacy.

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Use the most up-to-date versions of hardware and software.
"You can't really have privacy unless you have security," says Dan Guido, co-founder and CEO of Trail of Bits, a digital security company based in New York. As Guido says, "You can configure all the privacy options that you want, but if your software betrays you because it got hacked, then you're SOL." What that means, practically, is that if your computer, tablet, or phone is running an old operating system, then you're missing out on security improvements built into the architecture of the latest releases. If your computer or other device is so old it can't even run the latest software or OS, back up your files, and then recycle or get rid of that machine in favor of an upgraded model.

Enable "two factor authentication" for your online accounts.
Two factor authentication (2FA, for short — and sometimes referred to as two-step verification or log-in verification) adds another level of security beyond entering a username and password to access social media profiles and other sensitive accounts (like your email or bank account). With 2FA enabled, whenever you, or someone pretending to be you, attempts to log in to your account from an unrecognized device, the log-in screen asks for a security code, which is sent via text message to your phone. No code? No getting in. It's a bit more of a hassle than just the typical username/password combo, but worth it if you want to be all but certain to lock out people. To find out which services and companies offer 2FA, go to twofactorauth.org. Currently Apple, Google, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Snapchat all have it. Instagram does not.

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Perform a privacy checkup, especially on social media accounts.
Is the stuff you post on Facebook shared only with your friends, or are you broadcasting your opinions and photos to the entire Internet? Most people have no idea, and no idea how to even figure out exactly what they are sharing. That's because traditionally "Facebook has not done their diligence in providing that information in an easy-to-digest manner," Guido says. For example, your cover photo is public, and your next profile picture is also public unless you manually change its privacy setting. But back in September 2014, Facebook launched its Privacy Checkup feature, which holds your hand as it walks you through your settings. Use it. Also, if you're up for a new job, or just concerned about friends tagging you in compromising posts or photos, and then adding them to your timeline, you can also control that by going to the Timeline and Tagging Settings in Facebook's General Account Settings.

Control your location information.
Many popular mobile apps like Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram are set up to share your location information as a part of your posts. If you have an iPhone, Guido recommends going into Location Services in the Privacy settings and checking out which apps currently use your location, and turning it off for the ones you don't want to display it. Location Services also lets you opt to have apps keep tabs on where you are only when you're using them. If you have an Android phone, this kind of control over sharing your location isn't available yet. However, Guido says Android 6.0, which is starting to roll out now, should allow users to manage location permissions.

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Don't jailbreak or root your phone or tablet.
"When you jailbreak or root your device, you're basically breaking the security layer on your phone," says Alicia diVittorio, director of communications at Lookout Mobile Security in San Francisco. "So all of the security protections you're getting from Apple and Android that are currently on your device are no longer there once you jailbreak or root your phone." In other words, you're essentially inviting people in to snoop on your data.

Use "HTTPS Everywhere" when browsing the Web.
When browsing online, you obviously don't want any data you send to be snatched by a third party. When you visit a website and see a lock at the beginning of the URL in the browser address bar, that means your connection with that site is private and encrypted (technically, that lock means you're connected to the site via HTTPS, or Hyper-Text Transfer Protocol Secure). Some sites automatically default to using HTTPS, but others don't. HTTPS Everywhere, a browser extension for Chrome, Safari, and Opera co-created by The Tor Project and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, automatically forces sites to use HTTPS, if they offer it. "If you're not using HTTPS," Guido says, "what it means is that you're basically screaming your information out into a room filled with all the people around you, any of whom could potentially write down what you're saying and take it elsewhere."

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Use Icognito Mode or Private Browsing to cover most of your tracks.
All of the major browsers allow you to switch into a private browsing mode, in which the sites you visit, any cookies installed, usernames and passwords entered, and form data submitted are all wiped out when you close that browser window. But beware: While private browsing mode expunges your online trail from your device, employers and your ISP can still follow along with you wherever you digitally go.

Don't "sideload" apps.
Sideloading apps, meaning downloading them from outside the official Apple and Google app stores, is a potentially dangerous move. Sideloaded apps don't have to go through Apple and Google's vetting process, and thus may not have the security measures that apps sold through the official stores are required to have. Without you knowing, these apps could be accessing information about you from your phone that you'd rather not share. To see what the apps have access to, all you need to do is check Privacy Settings.