APR 15, 2024

5 Tips To Protect Yourself Online

With everything from entertainment to government services – rarely entertaining – going online, it can be easy to be fatalistic and say that the Internet has erased our expectations of privacy.

It’s true that it can be all too easy to accidentally have your private information leaked online, whether it’s a big corporation involved in a data leak, or a simpler matter of letting too much personal data slip on social media.

It doesn’t have to be hard to enhance your privacy online. Here’s 5 simple ways to make that happen:

1. Use a password manager, not the same old simple passwords

Step one in being more private online is ensuring that your online accounts for everything is locked down as secure as possible.

You’d want to keep your bank accounts private, wouldn’t you? The same should be true for anything that needs a password online, which is just about every service and app out there.

The easy way to manage passwords is to have one password you use everywhere. The problem with that is that it’s also the stupid way.

One data leak from a related service, and suddenly the one key that opens up all your online locks is out there for the world to see.

Even worse is if you use a dictionary word as your password, because those can be cracked in less time than it takes to blink.

The solution is a password management app. It’s software that keeps your passwords within a vault controlled by a secure password that you choose. That password isn’t used for other services and you use it only on the app on your phone, laptop or tablet, so it stays secure.

Password management apps can easily create very long and more secure passwords for you for every new service or app, ensuring you never double up, too.

Well-regarded apps in this space include 1Password, Dashlane, Keeper, LastPass and NordPass. Most browsers will also offer to “store” passwords for you, but this isn’t quite the same thing – and while that might feel handy, it’s nowhere near as secure.

2. Limit how much you’re being tracked

You’ve probably hit the phenomenon where you comment on a friend’s picture on Facebook, complimenting them on their shoes, only to be hit by a barrage of shoe ads not only on Facebook, but all across the web.

That’s not accidental or coincidental. There’s a huge market in creating detailed profiles of users across the web, noting everything from social media comments to search queries.

Most of the big tech players will argue that this allows them to “better target ads towards you”… and while that might have a grain of truth to it, it’s also downright creepy in a privacy sense.

So how do you stop this happening? There’s a few approaches to consider.

On the social media side, it’s largely a matter of considering what you say and where you say it, as well as the posts you interact with. That’s the price you “pay” for using these free services, because they will track your interactions, and even how long you spend looking at a particular post or image to build up your profile.

On the wider web, consider using an alternative browser that isn’t signed into major services such as Google to limit the level of tracking being done on you. That does come with a small cost in flexibility and ease of use, because your signed in browser will autocomplete to sites you’ve visited before and remember search terms and preferences.

3. Hide your IP address with a VPN

Ever had one of those (generally fake) ads that seem to know exactly where you are?

Creepy, isn’t it?

These work because your computer has an IP (Internet Protocol) address that allows sites to send it data – whether that’s the show you’re watching on Netflix or the web site you’re browsing.

It’s a necessary part of being online, and by default it’s quite public. It doesn’t quite show your full real world address, but generally ISPs do provide these on a locality basis – so for example it’ll show you’re in Sydney, Melbourne, wherever to anyone who bothers to cross-check this detail.

You can obscure that detail without compromising your online experience with the use of a VPN (Virtual Private Network) app.

VPNs connect to a central server (typically as close to you as possible to ensure best speeds, though you can use them to “locate” your computer anywhere they have a point of presence) to route your traffic from there.

As an added privacy benefit, VPNs encrypt your traffic to keep it even more safe from snooping eyes.

A note of caution here, however. There are a number of “free” VPNs out there that are worth about as much as you pay for them. Look for a trusted VPN brand such as ExpressVPN, NordVPN, Surfshark or Proton.

4. Check your app permissions

Most of us have a degree of clutter on our smartphones. I’m thinking here of the apps that you may have installed to meet a one-off need, whether it was a photo sharing app, free game or music app.

Those apps are taking up space, but are they taking more than just that? When you install most apps, they’re going to ask for a number of permissions around access to services such as your files and location.

In many cases that’s a necessary step. A GPS app isn’t going to do you much good if it doesn’t know where you are, for sure.

However, does a game really need to know the same location permissions? Probably not. Checking permissions within the settings part of your smartphone can reveal a surprising amount of detail around which apps want access to all sorts of information. Over the years I’ve seen games that want location access, photo apps that want to read SMS messages and plenty more besides.

A little spring cleaning of unwanted apps can remove these kinds of privacy headaches, but it’s also worth checking what permissions the apps you use every day actually want.

If you’re not comfortable with the access they want, check for less intrusive alternatives. In the smartphone world, there’s nearly always another app that will do the same thing.

If there is no alternative, check if there are options for less tracking, at least, like changing location awareness to only when you’re using that app, not all the time.

5. Think before you post online

Would you announce to the local burglar that you were going to be away for a week?

Probably not.

But if you post to social media that “you can’t wait for your week off work” then that’s functionally what you’re doing

If there’s other cross-correlating details about your life online, it wouldn’t take much work at all to determine a likely target for burglary.

Yes, it does happen, but even if you dismiss that risk, it’s well worth considering the other ways that many of us give away our privacy without even realising we’re doing so.

Wishing a friend a happy birthday on a given day makes two thirds of their birthdate quite public information – and all of it if you stop to wish them a happy 21st, 50th or similar.

Then there’s those quizzes that tell you your “Star Wars” name or similar. They may seem simple fun, but they’re also easy to check back to work out personal details, whether that’s birthdates, or the answers to the secret questions used to reset passwords.

They’re honestly best avoided if you’re at all privacy-minded, and in an online world that should be your default position.

Photo of Alex Kidman
Alex Kidman
A multi-award winning journalist, Alex has written about consumer technology for over 20 years. He has written and edited for virtually every Australian tech publication including Gizmodo, CNET, PC Magazine, Kotaku and more.