10 tips to maintain an online presence in a privacy-hostile world

10 tips to maintain an online presence in a privacy-hostile world

Online privacy is such a hot topic these days due in large part to the recent revelations about the NSA which have launched an unprecedented uproar from both supporters and critics.

But beyond these headlines, we are subject to countless and silent attempts at mining information about our habits, health, opinions and more either indirectly or because of our own doing.

And yet, having an online presence can be such an asset professionally, a way to connect with your family and friends, just to name a few.

Finding the right balance between what you should and should not share or simply avoiding common mistakes isn’t always easy. Below are some tips that will help the privacy conscious enjoy the benefits of being connected to the world but still sleep on both ears.

  1. No cookies for you!

    Cookies contain a lot of information about your browsing habits and are often used by advertisers to display tailored ads. While many sites require cookies, you can still browse in ‘Incognito’ or ‘Protected’ mode most of the time. Otherwise, clean your browser history and cookies on a regular basis to only leave a few crumbs.
  2. Don’t be ashamed of using a VPN (it won’t make you a terrorist)

    There’s a bad reputation surrounding VPN services probably because they allow a certain degree of anonymity which is often associated with bad behaviours. It goes back to the “I have nothing to hide” and those who do are suspicious argument. The reality is that things aren’t just black and white and using a VPN is actually a safe security practice especially on public networks.
  3. Strip the geolocation data from your pictures

    Taking a picture and sharing it is easier than it has ever been and yet many of us aren’t aware that a digital file can contain sensitive information. Perhaps your camera’s manufacturer or aperture settings aren’t too important, but the location’s coordinates where the picture was taken are. JP Taggart wrote a good post about this very topic on our blog.
  4. Sign-in, sign-out

    It’s easy to forget to close the pages you’ve opened in tabs and log out of services such as Gmail, Facebook or Twitter. This can allow these companies to follow you even while you’re surfing to external sites. For example, the ‘social buttons’ that are present on almost every website can track you, even if you don’t click on them.
  5. Sanitize your online profiles

    By the same token, when you share an update via a social network, you may be accidentally releasing your location. In fact, what you say and when you say it can be and is analyzed by various systems that perform data mining on you. This information is extremely valuable to marketing companies which sometimes know more about you than your own family (How Target Figured Out A Teen Girl Was Pregnant Before Her Father Did).
  6. Create a Google alert for your name

    It can be rewarding to be in the news, except when you don’t want to be in it. Unfortunately we can’t always control what journalists or people in general are going to write about us, but at least if we are alerted when it does come out, we can perhaps mitigate the problem. Rather than performing searches yourself on a daily basis, services like Google alerts will do that and inform you right away.
  7. Don’t put all your eggs in the same email

    It’d be easy, for convenience’s sake, to always use the same email address whether you are ordering from a store or registering on a forum. Beside the spam you will most likely have to fight with, a unique email address is ideal for anyone looking at linking all of your online activities. For this reason, it is better to use separate aliases based on whether it is for professional, family or leisure activities.
  8. Encrypt files before uploading them to the Cloud

    The ‘Cloud’ is something that everybody swears by. You can finally have all your files in one unique location accessible from all of your devices. Sadly, this convenience comes with an expensive security and privacy price tag. Not only do cloud providers have the ability to ‘scan’ all your files, but bad guys can find ways to access all your content as well. Cloud storage should be just that, a place to store files that have been protected before hand. Of course it won’t work for everything (music, etc) but in many cases it makes a lot of sense to encrypt your data before trusting a third party with it.
  9. There’s no such thing as a free lunch

    Beware that free products and services exist for a reason and derive revenues from their users by analyzing their habits and sharing/reselling their data. Sometimes it’s worth paying a few bucks knowing that you don’t have to worry about that.
  10. Security for privacy

    Perhaps the most obvious but yet often overlooked piece of advice is to keep your computer up-to-date and use several layers of protection. Malware in general and Spyware in particular come in various ways and can snoop on every single thing you do online. A different breed of unwanted software known as PUPs are even sneaker and their monetization model is after your online privacy.

Be proactive with your online privacy

Interestingly, many studies reveal that people are more inclined to share something private online, even to total strangers, than with their own families. Unfortunately, most people start caring about their online privacy when something’s happened to them, rather than proactively.

There is certainly a trade-off to using social networks and keeping an online presence but it doesn’t have to be all or nothing. It is certainly not an easy task and mistakes can be costly, but it is worth investing in because it might save you from an embarrassing moment, losing a job opportunity or even putting your life or your children’s in jeopardy.


Jérôme Segura

Principal Threat Researcher