February 5, 2020
Want to take back your online privacy? 7 easy steps to stop Facebook and others from spying on you
Survey after survey shows we don't like having our sensitive personal information collected, monitored and tracked whenever we share with friends on social media, shop online or use our mobile devices.
Yet we hand over much of this information willingly, whether to Facebook and Instagram, Google and Amazon or to dozens of mobile apps.
With few laws or regulations protecting consumers, the only way to take back our online privacy is to do something that doesn't come naturally in our share-all world: Withhold as much personal information as possible and, when we can't, use an alias and fake credentials.
The idea is called "obscurity" and it means taking steps to stop your personal information from being so readily available online to, well, just anyone, says Woodrow Hartzog, a professor of law and computer science at Northeastern University.
"Obscurity is really important and really powerful in the modern-day privacy debates because it's intuitive to all of us in the way that we live our lives, but we don't often think about it in terms of privacy," says Hartzog, who teaches privacy and data protection law.
Think about it this way. We hide in plain sight in the offline world all the time, moving through our day with a fair degree of anonymity.
Even with a phone in every pocket and cameras on street corners, we can still walk naked past an open window in a hotel room, pick our nose on a crowded subway car or adjust our underwear in the elevator without worrying that someone is observing every fleeting yet revealing moment.
But, as the saying goes, on the internet, everyone knows you're a dog. We can't get lost in the crowd when all kinds of businesses track us everywhere, compiling detailed snapshots of our lives that are used to determine what kinds of ads we see or loan offers we get.
Hartzog has pressed lawmakers and policymakers to use the legal principles of obscurity to give consumers more control over their personal information in this age of invasive online tracking.
"There is only so much that individuals can do," he says. "That's why I resist framing this issue as solely self-help. It's like trying to attack a tank with a toothpick. It will only get you so far."
It's true: We may not be able to stop data brokers equipped with sophisticated tools from stalking us online and off. But we can take steps to make our personal information harder to find. So we asked ProPrivacy.com, a digital privacy firm, for some pro tips.
Don't part with more data than you need to
Consider this: Data brokers you've probably never heard of hold up to 1,500 individual pieces of data for around 10% of the world's population, says Ray Walsh, a digital privacy expert at ProPrivacy.com.
"That is a staggering amount of data, and data brokers are constantly in the process of acquiring that data in order to sell it to third parties for a profit," he says. "Consumers often willingly part with more data than they strictly need to. This is unwise because once that data has been uploaded, it is potentially going to disseminate further afield."
Minimize your exposure
Apps on your mobile device are spying on you, compiling information about your behavior, habits and movements. So don't download every single app that catches your eye.
Still want to check out new apps but don't want them tracking you? Buy a cheap, secondhand pay-as-you-go phone and download them there.
Use an alias
You usually have to cough up an email address and phone number when signing up for internet services. But there's a workaround there, too. Use an alias email address and a forwarding phone number. If you really want to go undercover, don't use your real name, only a pseudonym.
"Using a secure private email service that provides disposable alias email addresses is a great way to sign up to a service and receive an email without having to provide your primary email address," Walsh says.
The same goes for services such as Google Voice. "By using a temporary phone number that forwards an SMS to your real phone, you can sign up to services without having to divulge your real phone number," he says. "This will massively reduce the potential for your real phone number and email to be disseminated online to data brokers."
Cut out the middleman
When making online purchases, shoppers often reflexively reach for PayPal, Walmart Pay and Google Pay. But involving a third party in your transaction isn't the savviest privacy move, Walsh says. Now the bank, the store and the app can all collect your information and track your purchases.
Is that so bad? It depends. Third parties can get a pretty good idea of your income and spending power. They can also create a database of your purchases and potentially sell your data to insurance companies, mortgage brokers or any other firms interested in you. Walsh says if a purchase is important or sensitive, use cash.
Location, location, location
Location data is very valuable to businesses snooping on you. Refuse GPS data tracking by apps whenever possible, Walsh says.
"If apps have invasive permissions that allow it to access your contacts, photo roll, and sensitive device data including your location, think twice before installing that app," he says.
Don't tell Facebook and Instagram everything
When you join a social media platform like Facebook or Instagram, you have to provide your real name, email address, gender and date of birth. Beyond that, you don't have to tell Facebook any other details about your life, not your mobile phone number or where you live, what movies you like or who you're in a relationship with.
Think twice about what information you provide, Walsh says. Even your likes can be used to infer sexual preferences, religious beliefs and political affiliations.
And, technically it's against Facebook's rules to use a pseudonym, but doing so could also help obscure your identity, Walsh says.
"The best way to use Facebook is to be hyper-aware that Facebook is always watching in the background, and that anything you post is being harvested by the company," he says. "If you provide photos of yourself with a person, Facebook facial recognition will know you have spent time with that person. If you provide your phone number in a private message, Facebook now has your phone number. So, if you don't want Facebook to find out sensitive details about you, it is vital that you never share those details on the platform, anywhere."
Invest in privacy
There's a tired adage in the tech world: If you aren't paying for the product, you are the product. Free mobile apps, social media platforms and giant online retail operations are all costly to build and maintain, so they make money off your data.
A good way to give them the slip: Pay for the services you can afford to, such as email and cloud storage. Walsh says there are a growing number of secure private email providers that use end-to-end encryption including Posteo, ProtonMail, and Tutanota on the market. Look for end-to end-encryption in secure storage providers, too, he recommends.
If you are feeling extra paranoid, you can sign up anonymously for added privacy and use a VPN both at sign-up and when accessing the account to conceal your IP address, Walsh says. This will ensure that the email header does not contain an IP address that can be traced back to you. If you want to really hide your tracks, pay for the secure storage using cryptocurrency.
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