In the United States, the Bill of Rights guarantees our right to freedom of speech and protects us from unreasonable searches. These freedoms are a source of national pride, a part of our American heritage. So, for me at least, the recent revelation that the National Security Agency monitors our activity on-line makes this Independence Day celebration a little bittersweet.
This Fourth of July, I’m standing up for my rights by taking charge of my on-line presence—and you can, too.
What If I Have Nothing to Hide?
The thing is—you probably do.
According to civil liberties lawyer Harvey Silvergate, the average American unknowingly commits three felonies a day. Traditionally, a person was only convicted of a crime if she had mens rea—a guilty mind. In other words, it was difficult for someone to become a criminal without meaning to be a criminal. Today, most of us could be convicted for the unintentionally illegal things we do everyday without ever knowing that we’ve done something wrong.
Our unacknowledged criminal records can cause serious problems down the road, especially if we leave on-line trails. Job interviews, custody cases, and potential legal trouble become much bigger threats when we don’t even know what skeletons lurk in our closets.
Or forget crime. An insurance company could hypothetically deny coverage because you’ve searched for information on a hard-to-treat condition. A mortgage company could refuse you credit because you’ve search for information about bankruptcy. The list goes on and on.
Violations of on-line privacy potentially affect all of us. That’s why internet security matters to everyone.
How Can I Protect Myself?
The good news is that protecting your on-line privacy is easier than you think. Even if you don’t have any technical know-how, here are four ways you can protect yourself, listed from smallest to largest commitment. Even if you aren’t ready to make major e-lifestyle changes, every little bit helps. And, if enough of us change the way we behave on-line, we might just send a message that gross violations of our privacy aren’t okay.
Reduce Your Social Media Footprint
The best way to protect yourself on-line is to delete all your social media accounts. Of course, social media sites are, for me at least, a necessary evil. (After all, you can follow Experimental Wifery on Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest.) But there is one golden rule you must follow:
Social media websites also collect information about you while you’re looking at other websites. If a site has a “Facebook like” button, for example, the website tells Facebook you’ve been there. Always log out of social media sites as soon as you are finished using them.
Change Your Search Engine
Most search engines have customers—but you aren’t one of them. Search engines make their money by selling ad space to companies who want to find their target audience. The more information search engines have about you, the more they can charge the advertisers who want you to buy their products.
DuckDuckGo is the safest way to search on-line. It is a non-profit search engine. It works a lot like more popular search engines, but it doesn’t keep track of your searches or help advertisers find you.
Using DuckDuckGo is easy. Just visit their website instead of your favorite search engine. Consider setting DuckDuckGo as your homepage. Finally, make DuckDuckGo your browser’s default search engine so all your searches are safe.
As an added bonus, DuckDuckGo doesn’t base search results on your personal information. That means you won’t get stuck in the “filter bubble” that stops you from finding ideas you don’t already agree with.
Get Rid of Ads and Tracking
Advertising on-line is as much about getting your personal information as it is about making a sale.
Companies invest huge amounts of money finding out where their customers are and what they are like. That means the stores and services you use most probably know more about you than you’d like to admit. (Because of the way they track customer data, Target notoriously found out about a teenage girl’s pregnancy before she told her parents.) Companies disregard your right to privacy all the time; your on-line activity and browsing history are especially valuable to them.
Adblock is one of the best ways to protect your on-line history. It blocks annoying ads and disables most of the tracking devices that come along with them.
Adblock is a plug-in you can download for many web-browsers, including Chrome. Once you’ve installed Adblock, you will rarely see pop-op ads or tasteless advertisements on the side of websites. More importantly, it won’t be easy for companies to track your personal information Visit Adblock.org for simple installation instructions. (When I downloaded the plug-in, I didn’t even have to restart my browser.) After you’ve downloaded it, visit the Features page to disable tracking and disable social media buttons.
Change Your Web-Browser
Your web-browser is the piece of software that allows you to surf the web. Most people use Internet Explorer or Google Chrome. But these browsers are notorious for security problems and privacy invasions. (To be fair, IE has been getting better. If you choose to stick with Internet Explorer, be sure you’re using an up-to-date version.)
Mozilla Firefox is an privacy-friendly browser. Mozilla is a non-profit corporation, so they have no reason to mine, store, or sell your data. Firefox is an intuitive, easy to learn browser.
To make the switch to Firefox, download the browser from Mozilla’s website. Follow the instructions to install the program. Firefox will even import your favorites and bookmarks from your current web-browser. Set Firefox as your default browser so you don’t fall back into back habits.
The internet is an amazing tool. Without the internet, I wouldn’t be able to have a blog and the wonderful community built around it. But we all have a responsibility to ourselves, our families, and our country to use the internet wisely. These four, easy steps are a great way to start.
Do you think on-line privacy is important? What do you do to protect yourself?