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7 basic steps to protect your online privacy

Does the steady drip, drip, drip of news about tech firms collecting your private data, the frequent breaches of personal data, and those advertisements that seem to somehow mirror your online searches have you unsettled? 

Your uncertainty and anxiety over the lack of online privacy isn’t a bad dream. It’s not even neurosis. It’s a reality. Details of your online activities are leaking out everywhere, starting with your device and continuing throughout each level of your activity. When online, a series of trackers is following your every move. And if one tracker does not have the desired data about you, they can trade with another to form a more complete set of data points around your online life. 

The one name on everyone’s mind when it comes to online privacy is Google, or more correctly, Alphabet their parent company. After all, Google has an estimated 76% share of the global search market and their name is synonymous with online search. A benchmark Princeton study of one million websites found nearly 70% percent of them were tracked by Google Analytics alone — and not counting trackers from Google subsidiaries such as DoubleClick, third-party partner firms, and websites that have embedded helpful Google trackers within their pages — they know your history. 

If you have an Android phone or even just use Gmail — Google has you tagged. Your Google account is the visible Gordian knot that ties the Google ecosystem together, providing you with an easy way to access various Google products and them a precise way of accounting for most everything you do online, allowing them to finetune new search results to your past searches and serve customized ads. Add in the Chrome browser, which automatically logs you in to your account, and you have handed Google access to your entire browsing activity and history. 

This is just the start of the Google ecosystem and its embrace of your online presence. Don’t forget about Google Maps and Waze navigator tracking your location and travel history, YouTube tracking your music and video preferences, and Google Assistant tracking your voice. But, relax over those emails you’ve sent. They say your Gmail is no longer mined for potential ads.

That is just Google. Not only does Facebook track its users, it is also following others with its array of “like” and “share” plugins on websites. The reach of trackers doesn’t stop there, and we haven’t even talked about the ability of an ISP to track activities and restrict access to sites and content that you really want to see. Yes, there are many reasons to feel uneasy about the amount of data that is being compiled about you.

No sheriff in this town.

As an American, your rights to data privacy are limited — even if you live in California. There are still months to go before California’s Privacy Law AB 375 will come into full effect during 2020, giving consumers the right to know what data is being collected about them, request deletion of private data, and even, upon request, get the names of third-parties that have been given their data. And who knows if Congress will pass any sort of national data privacy protection law or give the FTC expanded powers which might give it precedence over state legislation, making AB 375 a digital form of California Dreamin’. 

Unlike Europeans protected by GDPR, for now you can only hope that companies would ask for your consent before collecting your data, let you see what data they’ve collected about you, and even give you the right to be forgotten. Even worse, you can only dream that companies mishandling your data will get hit with a fine like the $230 million levied on British Airways or the $124 million on the Marriott. However, you need to deal with the legal limitations right now.

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You don’t have to give them your private stuff.

In case you are starting to feel totally exposed when logging on, don’t worry, there are still steps you can take to protect your privacy. Remember Benjamin Franklin’s old axiom: an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. This is true for your physical health and it is also key to maintaining your digital health and privacy online. 

Taking steps to address your online security isn’t as daunting as it might seem. Below are 7 steps outlined by privacy experts to help make the process more manageable, and all it will cost you is a few moments of your time!

1. Limit the access tech giants have to your data.

You have no right to complain about Google and Facebook collecting your private data when you are practically inviting them to do so. You can, and should, change that. Within your Google settings, you can restrict their ability to track activities and location history. Similar adjustments can be made with Facebook and even Microsoft data collection. It’s time for you to make the first move.

2. Find for an alternative type of search. 

A search engine is simply a bundle of software that systematically searches the internet. Even though Google is synonymous with search, there are other players with less invasive approaches to your privacy. Opera browser that comes with Avira Free Security Suite, offers you a solid layer of security while navigating online. Using an alternative browser will keep you safe from getting locked in a self-customized bubble (where your results are adjusted according to your past searches and interests) and will also give Google less detailed data about you. Another well-known alternative search engine is DuckDuckGo.

3. Use plugins to increase browser privacy.

Shut out trackers and some potentially hazardous ads at the source. Get a browser plugin that can deflect trackers and ads too. Two plugins to consider are Avira Browser Security and Privacy Badger from the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Both have counters that let you see just how tracked you are online, and they will also help protect you from malvertising attacks.

4. Encrypt your online activity with a VPN.

A VPN or a virtual private network tackles the gaps in HTTPS encryption and unsecure networks just like a special mailman with a registered letter. Both the sender and recipient sign off for the letter and only the mailman knows the details. The main point to remember is that a real VPN should encrypt the entire data packet (DNS, metadata, and the payload). Commercial VPNs do this by using a variety of established encryption protocols such as OpenVPN and are testing others like WireGuard. The location of a VPN’s servers is critical to unlocking some services and content. The right server sites will enable you to have the desired virtual location—like appearing to be at home when actually away on vacation or maybe even being in a different location altogether to circumvent a geo-IP content restriction.

5. Use a security app to protect against zero-day attacks. 

Software is typically updated by its creator to patch vulnerabilities as they are discovered. Zero-day vulnerabilities however are threats to your digital security that haven’t yet been addressed by software creators. This is where a security app can come in handy. A security apps can quickly identify malware and prevent it from damaging your device with its sophisticated layers of detection. An effective security app not only guards your device from zero-day attacks using the latest vulnerabilities, it also guards against recurring established threats (such as the Ramnit Trojan and the Windows EXP/CVE-2010-2568 vulnerability) that keep circling around. Some apps will also screen out suspected phishing sites, keeping you from giving away your personal information to cybercriminals. High-quality security apps should have a track record of preventing attacks and regularly undergo independent testing. 

6. Keep your software up to date.  

Keeping your device up to date is an essential part of maintaining your security and privacy. While operating systems are typically auto-updated by their creators, the software that you use on those platforms created by 3rd party developers don’t necessarily receive the same treatment. These vulnerabilities are an open door to the latest zero-day threat. A software updater takes care of this task, coordinating the search and download process for you. In addition, knowing that the updater is taking care of this lowers your vulnerability to false update alerts that distribute malware. 

7. Play defense with data breaches by using a password manager.

You just can’t prevent others from leaking your account details and passwords via unsecured cloud storage accounts and marketing these details on the dark web. All you can do is fight a defensive battle, checking at haveibeenpwned.com to see if your accounts have appeared on a hacked dark-web list and then clean up the mess by changing passwords as quickly as possible. This is precisely where password managers come in handy by enabling you to generate new passwords that are much more secure than the leaked ones you came up with yourself. And with just one Master Password to remember, you can focus on other things than memorizing multiple alpha-numeric passwords. 

So, there you have it, the seven simple steps to better protect your online privacy and security. All it takes is a bit of your time and effort, but it could be even easier.

With Avira Free Security Suite you have ten essential security apps in one FREE bundle, that protects and manages your security, privacy, and device optimization at the same time.