12 steps to improve your privacy online – Part 1

Following from an earlier discussion on the changing perception of privacy, “Giving up the ghost”, this post, the first of a two-part series, suggests options that could be implemented to improve your privacy online.

The Internet is an amazing tool, which to varying extents has improved the quality of our lives. It is a medium that offers us alternatives and convenience, e.g. to carry out routine tasks, to be aware of developments, and to participate in different conversations that are occurring. However, in exchange for those benefits we can become exposed to some of the more sinister elements found on the Internet. Below are some tips to limit your vulnerability and to take some control of your security and privacy online.

1.  Do not reveal your personal information. Although this tip goes without saying, it is amazing the number of people who are guilty of not adhering to it. Information that you should not publicly disclose online include, your full birth date (dd/mm/yyyy), phone numbers, addresses and your mother’s maiden name. Your full birth date and mother’s maiden name in particular, are frequently used as security questions by many institutions, especially banks and credit card facilities.

2.  Set strong passwords. On most sites, users must set passwords to protect their accounts. The minimum length of passwords is usually between 6 and 8 characters and at the very least can include a combination of numbers and upper and lower case letters. To increase the strength of your passwords, and as a starting point:

  • make them longer than 8 characters
  • do not use dictionary words, your personal information and obvious sequences, such as parts of the alphabet or numbers
  • add complexity by incorporating and replacing letters in your starting word or phrase with upper and lowercase letters, numbers, as well as with special characters (such as punctuation and symbols) if allowed.

3.  Regularly review the security/privacy options of websites. Occasionally websites may update their terms of service, privacy policies, and/or their privacy or security options. Many of them might notify their users of those amendments, but then again they might not. For example, several Facebook users have observed that the company is inconsistent in how it applies new updates. If an update benefits Facebook, it tends to be done automatically, but if it benefits users, they usually have to opt in.

However, most websites do reserve the right to update those policies without notice. Further, since the information tends to be readily available on the site, it becomes incumbent on users to ensure that they are aware of the revisions that have been made and to adjust their preferences accordingly.

4.  Opt out of 3rd party information sharing. When registering to use a site, persons are regularly given to option to not allow the site to share their information with other entities. Sometimes, the site will refer to those entities as “trusted”, “select”, or “partners”, but the crux of the matter is that you really do not know who these parties are, what information they will be given, and how that information will be used.

5.  Be mindful when using public PCs or unsecured Wi-Fi connections. Public PCs and unsecured Wi-Fi connections are a hotbed of security threats, such as through hacking and spyware, and even through persons physically eavesdropping in your vicinity. Under no circumstances should you access sites that require you to send sensitive or personal information in those environments. In addition to the examples given in the first tip, do not access bank accounts or accounts that contain credit card information. Finally, when using public PCs, ensure you log out of any account that you have accessed before you leave.

6.  Clear cache or history after browsing. A web browser’s cache stores temporary Internet files on websites visited, on documents, images, other downloaded content, and even cookies. These files are initially referenced when loading web pages, which speeds up the download time. However, these same files leave a very clear path of all of your activities online. After browsing on public PCs, it is important to ensure that the cache is emptied before you depart.