How to protect your privacy online. Step-by-step

Depending on where you live, your online privacy is either protected to some extent by legislation or not protected at all. If you’re here, we assume you already know that even the most watertight law will not protect you from online profiling. Nor will it stop data brokers from selling your sensitive personal information to anyone willing to pay.

Fortunately, you can control most of what you share while using privacy and security tools to safeguard the rest. In this article, we’ll show you how to protect your privacy online, step by step.

Why the privacy of your data goes hand in hand with data security

“Don’t talk to strangers” was probably the first privacy warning you heard. It comes with immediate consequences for your security. Sharing information with people you don’t know can only help them take advantage of you and do you harm.

Today, the same is true for your online privacy, where “talking to strangers” means three things:

  • How much you voluntarily share online, on social media sites, forums, etc.
  • How much information is collected about you, with or without your consent.
  • How much data can be stolen using illegal practices such as phishing or identity theft.

Taking care of your online privacy only makes sense when you can also protect your details from breaches and data leaks. This is why we’re sharing 14 solutions to help protect both your privacy online and your digital security.

List of privacy and security measures you can apply right now

This is our privacy online checklist. Click on any of the sections to read more. We explain why it’s important to safeguard your online privacy at the very end.

  1. Limit how much you share online
  2. Remove what you already shared
  3. Use privacy-focused tools
  4. Review the apps and extensions you use 
  5. Connect to a VPN
  6. Block ads and cookies
  7. Enable 2FA and strong passwords
  8. Pay attention to encryption
  9. Use identity theft protection
  10. Use antivirus software
  11. Install updates regularly
  12. Secure physical access to your devices
  13. Educate yourself
  14. Take care of kids and older adults.

Limit how much you share online

This one is entirely in your hands. The information you share online is a massive chunk of your online footprint. Commit to sharing less on social media platforms or, better still, remove them from your life altogether. 

We now spend (or waste) over two and a half hours a day on social media platforms with engagement-increasing algorithms leading us around by the nose. Social media sites are also where many of us overshare the most, filling out details such as marital status, date of birth, countries lived, and favorite movies. This detailed image of ourselves comes illustrated with photos and can be easily completed by our likes, dislikes, and the profiles we follow.

If quitting sounds impossible, go through your social media accounts and remove as much information as possible. Change the settings of the remaining info to private and consider using a nickname instead of your real name. 

If you’re not sure how to adjust privacy settings on your social media accounts, we have guides for most of them. Just follow the links below:

LinkedIn, which is also a type of social media, allows you to control who can see your connections, activity feed, and other profile information. You can choose to connect with anyone, only people you know, or customize your connection settings.

Remove your information from the internet

Choosing not to overshare is the first step to protecting your privacy online. What about the information you shared already or the data that’s been collected without your knowledge? 

We’ve written about removing personal information online extensively, and we’ve even created a comprehensive and easy-to-follow guide to help you do it for free:

How to remove personal information from the internet 

Here’s a quick rundown of the main points.

Removing your personal info from search engines

Running a quick search for your name (using quotation marks as in “John Doe”) will reveal some places where your personal information lives. Removing your sensitive information from search results is possible, if painstaking. We describe it in detail in this article:

How to remove your personal info from Google search 

Delete sensitive personal information on people search sites

Sadly, running a check through people search sites, such as Intelius or PeopleLooker, will reveal more detailed information about you. The list of data points these data brokers collect is very long, but the list of data brokers operating today is even longer. The good news is that you can opt out of every one of them, and the process is relatively straightforward, if time-consuming. If you don’t know where to start, we’ve created an opt-out guide for every single one of these sites in alphabetical order. 

Review your online accounts 

You’ve almost certainly created many accounts over the course of your online life, many of which you no longer use or need. Some were to sign up for an online course, others to make just one purchase. These accounts could still store your financial information, Social Security number, and other personal details. To find them, search your mailbox for welcome and verification emails, then log in to each one and delete your account. 

Follow our guide on how to find accounts linked to a phone number here.

Remove apps and check the permissions of the ones you want to keep

Mobile devices have become integral parts of our lives, and we often download various apps for convenience and entertainment. However, some apps, particularly those downloaded outside official app stores, may pose privacy risks. Free apps, in particular, might collect and share personal data for targeted advertising or other purposes. 

Remember that bunny ears app you used once? It may still be tracking your location. 

The most data-hungry apps are social media apps and those related to food delivery, shopping, and dating. Start with these. Each time you remove an app from your mobile device, make sure your data is also removed.

Review all extensions

The same is true for browser extensions. As much as ad-blocking extensions are a godsend in removing aggressive ads jumping out at you on every page, they may also know way too much. In fact, before you install an extension, a pop-up usually asks you to grant permissions to “everything you browse.” Manage your extensions and keep only the ones you use. If an extension is absolutely necessary, check the privacy policy of the company that created it. You can also replace it with a more privacy-focused one.

Read our research piece on Chrome extensions for more moderately alarming details. 

Try a data removal service 

If you’re excited about removing your private information from the internet, that’s great. Use the numerous guides linked to in this article to get started. Alternatively, you can use a data removal service like Incogni to do the job for you. A data removal service will send opt-out requests to data brokers on your behalf and remove your details from places you didn’t even know existed. In addition to enhanced online privacy, you’ll also quickly notice a reduction in phone and email scams. 

Use privacy-focused tools

Using more private search engines, browsers, and email services will help you better control how much information is collected about you based on your online habits. Better tools, especially those with true end-to-end encryption, will also prevent data leaks.

Privacy-focused search engine

Searching the web can reveal a lot of personal information about you. If you use Google or Bing, you automatically share your search history with them. This means you leave a huge data trail that can be used for targeted advertising or sold to third parties. Online tracking companies use your search results and history to build profiles they sell to advertisers and other businesses.

A more secure search engine can help protect your online privacy by not storing your search requests or IP addresses. If you want to learn more about how these engines work and which one’s best for you, check out our pick of the best private search engines in 2023.

Private browsers

To further protect your privacy online, use not only a more secure search engine but a private browser as well. 

This section calls for a disclaimer: incognito or private mode in most browsers, including Google Chrome, is not equivalent to private browsing. In fact, incognito mode does not guarantee online privacy because it mainly focuses on the browsing history on your device and doesn’t protect against website tracking or ISP monitoring. 

A good privacy-focused browser can help minimize tracking and data collection, as well as prevent websites from saving your browsing and search history. They also often include features to manage cookies, block third-party scripts, and provide encrypted connections.

Read on to see which browsers are best for privacy online in 2023 and which ones to avoid.

Privacy-focused email provider

A secure and encrypted mailbox is another essential tool for online privacy. That’s because the overwhelming majority of email providers don’t offer end-to-end encryption of email contents. 

Gmail uses Transport Layer Security (TLS) to encrypt the connection between your device and Google’s servers when you send and receive emails. However, you’d need a third-party encryption provider to secure the email text and attachments. By the way, we also have a guide on how to encrypt emails.

Better yet, you can try a privacy-focused email provider such as Proton Mail or Tutanota, both of which have built-in content encryption by default. If you struggle to give up your Gmail account like I did in the past, there is an email forwarding option that allows you to keep it.

Throwaway email addresses

Your primary email address is the gateway to your digital life. It’s the address you use to log into apps and websites. It’s also the one people will use to find you across platforms (whether it’s a dating site or even social media).

To protect your privacy, you can create disposable or single-use email addresses and use them for online shopping or other transactions where you don’t want your real identity to be known. Single-use email addresses protect online privacy by providing a temporary and anonymous way to receive emails, reducing the risk of spam, phishing attempts, and unauthorized access to your primary email. They help you maintain control over who has access to your personal information and make it harder for advertisers and malicious actors to track you.

Read our article on the best disposable email services to find out more.

Alternative ID

If you’re willing to go one step further, you can try a product allowing you to create throwaway online identities. These include not just an email but also an alias for your name and surname and a telephone number. An alternative ID limits the amount of personal info exposed online to a minimum when opening a new online account or signing up for online services. Alternative IDs help to protect against identity theft and more spam (and scams) coming to your phone and mailbox. 

Use a Virtual Private Network (VPN)

A virtual private network is both a digital security and privacy tool. It’s an app you can install on mobile devices or add as an extension to your browser. It does two things: encrypts your traffic and replaces your actual IP address with another one (wondering what else people can do with your IP?). By doing so, it keeps your internet traffic private from your Internet Service Provider (ISP), which can no longer see which pages you visit and what you do there. 

While we hope your particular ISP is an honest company that doesn’t sell your traffic information to data brokers, you should never trust public WiFi networks. A VPN is a must to protect your privacy online when on public WiFi. If it hasn’t yet, this is where a data theft or breach is most likely to happen. 

To improve online privacy, it’s best to secure all your devices with a VPN. That said, stay away from free services and invest in a trusted VPN provider (look out for a no-logs policy). You’ll find more details about VPN technology here.

Block ads and cookies 

Every page you visit labels you and collects data about your activity thanks to trackers called HTTP cookies. Blocking ads and cookies will protect your privacy online by reducing tracking, mitigating targeted advertising, preventing data sharing with third parties, and decreasing exposure to malicious content. Changing the default cookie settings on your browser will limit the extent to which your activities are monitored.

To block ads and cookies, you can use either browser extensions or settings. Privacy-focused browsers offer the most effective and customizable ad and cookie management features. Some can even limit browser fingerprinting, which is the practice of collecting extensive information about your device every time you visit a page.

Use two-factor authentication (2FA) and strong passwords

Using two-factor authentication (2FA) and strong passwords is a habit that will make your data more secure and, therefore, less at risk of being caught up in a data breach.

Suppose you use the save-password feature on your browser or just use one password for all of your online accounts. In that case, a single security compromise can potentially jeopardize multiple accounts, making you more vulnerable to a data breach. A password manager will generate an impossibly complicated (and impossible to hack) password for each of your accounts and safely store it for you. 

If, on top of this, you enable two-factor authentication on top, then we can assure you the majority of cybercriminals won’t even bother trying to hack you. 2FA means you need both a password and a code sent to your mobile phone to access an account. Few online criminals will try to get into the possession of your phone to perpetrate their crime.

Pay attention to encryption

First, make sure you visit websites protected by the HTTPS protocol. HTTPS, as opposed to HTTP, means that your data is encrypted and secure during transmission. This makes it considerably more difficult for unauthorized individuals to intercept or manipulate the information you exchange with a given website. Some privacy-focused browsers (Brave) allow you to limit your browsing to HTTPS sites only. Otherwise, you have to look out for it yourself (in the search bar).

Website encryption is especially important for online transactions and financial activities where sensitive information, such as credit card details and personal identifiers, are exchanged. HTTPS makes it significantly more challenging for cybercriminals to engage in financial fraud or steal your financial information.

The same goes for messaging apps. Encrypted messaging applications protect your conversations by allowing only you and the intended recipient to read the messages. That said, make sure to check the encryption standards of your favorite messaging apps because not all “encrypted” apps offer the same level of security.

Identity theft protection

An identity theft protection tool can help protect your online privacy by continuously monitoring and detecting any signs of compromised personal information, such as data breaches or suspicious activity. It provides timely alerts to users, allowing them to take immediate action to secure their accounts and prevent unauthorized access. 

Use antivirus software

Antivirus is one of the earliest cybersecurity tools ever created, but it’s still essential in keeping your data safe and private. Here’s how:

Stopping malware: Malware, such as keyloggers and spyware, can compromise privacy by capturing sensitive information like passwords, credit card details, and personal data. By constantly scanning files, websites, and emails, antivirus software can identify and prevent malware infections, thus safeguarding your privacy online.

Phishing attempts: Antivirus software can detect and block phishing attempts, thus preventing the disclosure of personal and confidential information to malicious actors.

Data breaches: Many antivirus suits also include firewall protection that blocks unauthorized access attempts, protecting your privacy by preventing potential data breaches and unauthorized data transfers.

Install updates regularly 

The software update reminder popping up on your screen daily isn’t there only to annoy you. Cybercriminals constantly seek out vulnerabilities to exploit, and if your software, operating system, or applications are not up-to-date, they become more susceptible to attacks.

Installing operating system updates and software updates regularly safeguards online privacy by applying security fixes and patches, mitigating vulnerabilities, introducing privacy controls, and improving compatibility with new security measures and protocols.

By keeping your systems and software current, you reduce the risk of being targeted and having your personal information exposed.

Secure access to your devices 

Lastly, now that we’ve looked at everything you can do to protect your privacy within your system, let’s remember that your devices are physical objects someone can steal or access without authorization. It’s vital to implement robust security measures, such as setting strong passwords and using biometric authentication methods, if available, to prevent unauthorized access to your devices. 

Additionally, consider encrypting your data and enabling remote tracking and wiping features for your mobile devices and laptops. These precautions will help protect not only your online privacy but also make it harder for unauthorized individuals to gain access to your personal information.

Stay alert, educate yourself 

Knowledge is power. There is no better tool to protect your privacy than being aware of the risks and knowing how to recognize them. Ultimately, no software or app will stop you from clicking on suspicious links or getting caught in phishing scams. Circling back to the initial talking-to-strangers comparison, the internet is not your friend, so proceed with caution and apply minimal trust.

Protect the online privacy of your kids

Or your parents. These two groups are especially vulnerable to online exploitation as they may underestimate the risks of sharing personal information online and can be easily manipulated. 

While cybersecurity workshops are increasingly part of the school curriculum, make sure you follow up on your kids’ activity online, ask specific questions, and illustrate the risks with concrete examples. This is especially true when it comes to social media platforms, which pose a threat not just to the security of your device but also to the mental wellbeing and self-esteem of your little ones. No wonder Silicon Valley moguls ban their children from it.

If your children have their own devices, enable any parental controls already built into mobile operating systems or browsers. You can also use a family-friendly browser instead (e.g. SwissCows). In addition, many parental control programs and apps allow you to set up custom control and monitoring.

Regarding your parents’ and grandparents’ devices, go through the checklist at the top of this article with them and try to implement as many safeguards as possible. Don’t take it lightly. According to our research, people over 60 lost a total of $3.1B to online fraud in 2022 alone. Try to spread awareness among the older adults around you and make sure their software and tools are adapted to any disabilities that they may have so that they don’t click on a link or overshare information by mistake.

Why is it important to safeguard your online privacy?

Protecting your online privacy is essential in light of the increasing prevalence of data breaches, consumer concerns, and government surveillance.

In the United States, 45% of Americans have had their personal information compromised by a data breach in the last five years. These breaches can result in unauthorized access to sensitive information, such as Social Security numbers, financial accounts, and login credentials, which can then be exploited to commit identity theft and fraud.

In addition to the security of personal data, people are getting increasingly uncomfortable with how many of their preferences, interests, or even dreams and ambitions can be guessed by social media algorithms and advertising companies. These increasing concerns about online privacy are evident in consumer attitudes. A recent survey reports that 74% of online consumers are more concerned about their online privacy than ever before. 

The internet is a great tool that makes life a lot easier, more convenient, and fun. Unfortunately, without proper defenses in place, data privacy is the currency we use to pay for it. The good news is that by staying informed about online security and adopting safe practices prescribed in this guide, we can enjoy the benefits of the internet while safeguarding our data privacy. With a good dose of vigilance, we can continue to explore and enjoy the online world with confidence and peace of mind.

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