How to Increase Online Privacy in 5 Steps

When you consider that an incredible 36 billion information records were exposed through data breaches during the first half of 2020 alone, it’s clear that businesses are increasingly at the mercy of hackers and cyberthieves.

The same principle applies to individuals, who often lack the security resources of corporations and are at even greater risk of being targeted by DDoS and malware attacks on their personal devices.

So, it’s crucial that you’re able to take proactive and practical steps to increase your online privacy. Here are some ideas to keep in mind:

#1. Always Check Your Social Privacy Settings

We spend a growing amount of our time each day on social media, and you may not know that these networks accumulate a great deal of personal information about you over time.

Because of this, you may find that a surprising volume of personal data is visible to others online, placing you at an increased risk of malware attacks and identity theft.

It’s also interesting to note that 95% of all cybersecurity breaches are caused by human error, so you can immediately minimise your risk simply by reviewing your privacy settings across all social media platforms and tailoring these to suit your precise needs.

In the case of sites such as Facebook, this may be as simple as reviewing who has access to your posts and content (before restricting this if necessary) and removing any personal details from your profile that you don’t want to share publicly.

Privacy settings may vary slightly from one site to another, however, so be sure to check each platform that you’re active on and follow the necessary processes.

#2. Use a VPN

If you’re asking yourself ‘what is a VPN?’, this describes a ‘virtual private network’ through which your unique IP address is masked.

Central to the core VPN meaning is the establishment of a private and secure network through a public Internet connection, which routes all of your data through a virtual tunnel that encrypts the content.

So, your Internet service provider will only ever see the stream of encrypted data that’s being sent to a specific server, while your IP address, the precise nature of the content and its end destination remains invisible.

When addressing the question ‘what does a VPN do?’, its main purpose is to negate geographic and international restrictions placed on content through streaming platforms like Netflix. However, it can also optimise your security when surfing online, particularly when accessing content through a public Internet connection.

By masking your unique IP address, for example, this will be invisible and untrackable from the perspective of potential hackers or cyberthieves.

This minimises the risk of your device being the subject of a malicious DDoS, malware or ransomware attack, creating a far greater level of security over time.

#3. Only Use Messaging Apps With End-to-End Encryption

While almost all contemporary messaging apps use some form of encryption, the most common iteration is described as ‘encryption in transit’.

Once these messages are delivered, however, they’re decrypted by the service provider in question and stored on their servers. This creates a potential data risk if their servers are subsequently hacked or compromised, so it’s far better to choose messaging apps and services that feature ‘end-to-end’ encryption.

This is a more secure method of communication that prevents third parties from decrypting or accessing data as it moves from one device to another, with WhatsApp and Signal renowned for using this type of encryption.

But what messaging apps don’t feature end-to-end encryption? Well, Facebook Messenger, Google Allo and (surprisingly) Telegram all utilise an encryption in transit model, making them far less secure and placing your personal data and message content at potential risk.

If you’re choosing between WhatsApp and Signal as your main messaging service provider, the latter is arguably better from a security perspective.

This may sound strange given that WhatsApp and Signal both use the same basic protocol and level of encryption. However, WhatsApp collects huge swathes of metadata from users over time, whereas Signal only collates and stores their users’ phone numbers.

So, when using Signal, information such as the time that the message was sent and your location are completely encrypted and cannot be accessed by anyone.

#4. Use Secure Passwords and Codes at All Times

This may sound obvious, but it’s worth discussing given that ‘123456’ remains the single most common password online.

In fact, analysis of more than 15 billion passwords revealed an over reliance on some incredibly simplistic combinations, including ‘qwerty’, ‘111111’ and the classic ‘password’.

Ultimately, it’s crucial that you use strong and unique passwords to secure your personal data online, ideally using a different phrase or alphanumeric combination for each account, service or application.

You can also use an encrypted password manager to securely store all of your login details in a single, easily accessible space, making it easier to maintain a broad selection of passwords and optimise your online security.

In terms of individual passwords, long, alphanumeric combinations of between eight and 12 characters tend to be the best, especially when combining letters, numbers and symbols such as ‘!’ in a random sequence.  

It’s also recommended that you secure your phone and personal computers with passwords or codes, in order to create an additional layer of protection.

Most modern laptops and personal computers allow you to use either four-digit pins or passwords to provide secure access, while on smartphones you should probably create a six-digit pin instead of utilising screen-lock patterns.

Of course, most modern smartphones are likely to support some form of biometric authentication, either in the form of face unlocking or fingerprint reading.

However, such technologies are still relatively immature and have their limitations, so it’s wide to use biometrics alongside a support passcode or password.

#5. Don’t Use Public Storage for Private Information

On a similar note, it’s important that you don’t use online public storage facilities to hold personal or sensitive data, whether this is a list of your passwords or the private key to your digital crypto wallet.

Make no mistake; resources such as Google Drive are unsuitable for storing such data, as even encrypted files may be at risk of being hacked or targeted online.

The same principle applies to platforms such as Dropbox, as while you may use this service to scan in passports and other forms of ID, it lacks the security features to store such information for an extended period of time.

The encrypted archive at Dropbox is a little more secure, but it’s best to avoid this wherever possible and select more secure (and potentially offline) alternatives.

Adam Hansen