These days it is very hard to keep your profile low when you are online. Services that are used every day by many, such as Facebook, Google and Twitter, aren’t exactly known for keeping your data especially private by default. Advertising companies are also known for tracking your browsing habits across many websites using cookies, so they no doubt know more about you than you realize.
So, in this age of compromised digital privacy, how do you regain your footing and protect yourself from things that may come back to bite you? We have this handy guide to tell you just what you can do to keep private online.
We've already posted up the first part, where we go over some of the more drastic measures you can take to regain your online privacy. Today's second part is all about the less drastic measures.
Less drastic measures
Many of the things listed in the “drastic measures” section are over the top and unnecessary for the average user. So if you would prefer to keep your online accounts but still remain private, then read the tips below to see how to strengthen your online security and privacy.
Tighten your Facebook privacy settings
Many people have very open Facebook profiles, allowing anyone (and potentially anything) access to personal data such as photos, locations and phone numbers. While this data may be useful for your friends on the service, it isn’t so much for internet randoms, so here’s how you can crank up the security on your account.
- Click on the down arrow next to your name and then go to Privacy settings
- First, change your default privacy to Friends rather than Friends of Friends so that people who haven’t added you have less visibility
- Check the settings below these boxes for anything that may potentially be leaking unwanted information to the masses. Be wary of anything that lists access to “Everyone” and consider restricting access just to friends. In particular look out for the profile look-up settings under How You Connect.
- Click on the Manage Past Post Visibility link to change any old public posts to have visibility to just your friends.
- Go back to your News Feed after adjusting your privacy settings and click on Create Status. From here there is a drop-down menu next to the Post button that allows you to control who sees your posted content. We advise changing this to Friends, and even if you don’t immediately post a status your selection will be saved.
Tighten your Twitter privacy settings
Twitter by nature is a very public service and is not an ideal social network to be using if you desire maximum online privacy. However, there are some steps that can be taken to ensure that the content you post is not accessed by the wrong types of people (like bosses, employers and ex-girlfriends).
The first step is to protect your tweets. This means that whatever you tweet can only be seen by your followers and you have full control over who can follow you by accepting follow requests similar to friend requests on Facebook. To do this head to your account settings and then under the first Account tab there is a single Protect my Tweets checkbox that enables this setting.
The second thing you can do is remove all location data from your tweets to ensure that people don’t know where you are. This is done in the same account settings tab; simply deselect Add a location to your Tweets and then click the Delete all location information button to ensure that all location data is removed from past posts.
Other than those two things there aren’t many other steps that you can take to secure your Twitter profile, but usually protecting your Tweets does most of the work.
Tighten your Google account privacy settings
Tightening the privacy on your Google account is trickier than Facebook or Twitter as Google has a lot of different services that you might use. Luckily the Google Dashboard helps you manage all your accounts and gives you some handy links to change the privacy of multiple services. Below we have listed the most critical accounts that you should protect and how to do so.
Google+: Privacy settings for Google’s social network are spread across three main areas. The first is post content, and you can restrict who sees that via setting appropriate Circles and selecting to only share to those circles. The second is your profile, which may have public information; to rectify this visit your profile and change any fields that may be public to private. Finally there are the account privacy settings that control what appears in search and photo settings; controlling that is available under the Privacy link when you click on your name in the top bar.
Tip: If you have a Google+ account that you don’t use, we suggest deleting it. You can do that without deleting your Google account by choosing Delete profile and remove associated Google+ features from the account setting overview.
Latitude: Google’s social-location service (similar to Foursquare) is a breeding ground for Google and others to know where you are and have been. The service is disabled by default but if you do enable it, you can either disable it or heavily restrict it via the Manage privacy link in your Google Dashboard.
Web History: This is another service that some users may have enabled, and it is likely used by Google to personalize your advertisements. In the Dashboard there is a button to Remove items or clear Web History, which allows you to completely erase your web history and then disable it from logging future searches.
Picasa: As Picasa stores your photos, potentially of yourself or loved ones, it’s important that these aren’t visible to the public. To ensure that albums are private you will need to change the album visibility in the album properties to either Only you or Limited depending on your preference. You can also adjust some other minor privacy settings via the link in the Dashboard.
Tip: If you want to stop using Picasa, we recommend using Google Takeout to download your images before deleting all the albums in your account
YouTube: Finally, you may want to secure your YouTube account. This is another two-step process: the first involves removing all irrelevant fields from your public profile such as deleting your name and location; secondly you can tweak your privacy settings as linked to in the Dashboard. We highly recommend unchecking Please use my account information to provide me with relevant advertising for maximum privacy.
One last good thing you can do in the Dashboard is have Google email you whenever your personal information is posted publicly. To enable this, go to the Me on the Web section and click on the Set up search alerts for your data link. From here you can customize special terms to be notified when they are indexed, such as your email addresses and phone numbers.
Tighten your Windows Live privacy settings
Microsoft makes it really easy to control the privacy settings on your Windows Live account. Simply log in and click on the down arrow next to your name and go to the Privacy settings link. From here either choose Private or click Advanced and manually move the sliders to your preferred privacy settings for each area of your account.
You may also want to change your Xbox Live privacy settings, which differ from the standard Windows Live settings. This is also easy: go to Xbox.com, click on My Account followed by Privacy and Online Settings on the right hand side and then log in again. Once you are in you can change several settings to either friends only or blocked modes. Obviously choosing Blocked gives you the greatest privacy here.
Clean your social app permissions
Most social networks allow developers to use their API in their applications, and each time you use said application you are asked for permission. As you continue to use new applications, you may be inadvertently sharing your personal information and other unwanted information, and you may not even used these apps any more.
Luckily there is an easy way to clean up your application permissions: mypermissions.org. This handy website links directly to the application permission page for 11 different social networks including Facebook, Twitter, Google, LinkedIn and Foursqaure. They claim cleaning app permissions only takes 2 minutes and we have to agree that it is very easy. We recommend removing/denying permission from any applications that you no longer use; this way they can’t access your data at all and you lose no functionality.
You can also get the website to remind you monthly to check up on your application permissions, just to ensure that there are no rouge apps farming your information.
Use a non-tracking search engine
Search engines such as Google, Bing and Yahoo all collect your personal information to try and personalize your searches and advertisements. Over the course of many years using the same search engine these services could have a mountain of information about your browsing habits, especially if you previously had web history enabled on your favourite search engine’s account.
Not only that, searches you perform could be restricted to just your interests, rather than showing everything that is available on the internet. One example is that after many years of being a tech-savvy searcher, your search for “apple” would only show results about the large tech company. Using a private search engine that doesn’t log your IP address allows you to get results for the company, the fruit and even dietary advice.
The search engine also uses a unique star rating system that uses the top results from other search engines to produce a very accurate top ten results list on Ixquick: one star for one engine agreeing on a top result up to five for five engines agreeing. Essentially you are getting a consensus choice from many different sources and the results in our experience are very accurate.
If you want to keep your searches private and not logged, we highly recommend Ixquick as the search engine of choice.
Tweak your browser to regain privacy
We’ve already mentioned some browser plug-ins that can be used to automatically put your browser into private browsing mode (check those out in the Drastic section), but if you actually use accounts on websites then this isn’t particularly ideal. So instead, we have listed some other extensions and browser settings that you can use to stop websites tracking you when you don’t want them to.
All: We recommend installing an ad-blocker to prevent advertising agencies from tracking you via scripts that may be included in their ads. AdBlock is usually available for most web browsers, but please remember that many websites, such as ours, rely on advertising for keeping the site running. Consider subscribing to Neowin, which with a Tier 2 subscription supports the site while removing ads.
AdBlock Plus also has an EasyPrivacy subscription that disables tracking scripts on many websites. You can use this in conjunction with a full ad block list if you desire maximum security, although some specialized add-ons that we mention below allow you to tweak website tracking.
Another piece of software is available for most browsers that will block many tracking websites and that is Do Not Track Plus. It's a free service that blocks many trackers across 125 technologies, and gives you statistics on what trackers are active and blocked. Give it a try in conjunction with some of the other browser specific methods listed below for maximum protection.
Firefox: The first thing you should do with Firefox is go into the options and then to the Privacy tab. Check the box that says Tell web sites I do not want to be tracked. It’s also advisable to have a master password on the browser for increased security; you can set that up under the Security tab.
When it comes to add-ons for Firefox we recommend firstly installing Ghostery. This add-on allows you to see which websites are tracking you and manually stop them from doing so. It has a robust set of privacy features that are well worth exploring.
Another add-on worth looking at is BetterPrivacy, which prevents long term cookies (often called “Super-Cookies”) and locally stored objects from plug-ins such as Flash. These can be used to track you and this plug-in deals with them automatically.
Finally you should look at RequestPolicy, an add-on which allows you to see which websites are using cross-site requests and block them effectively. As the developers put it: “Cross-site requests are requests that your browser is told to make by a website you are visiting to a completely different website.” To stop this behaviour you can get the add-on here.
These are just some of the many privacy-related plug-ins available to Firefox users, so please check out the full list for more intricate control and monitoring of your privacy. We have simply listed the three which are most important when it comes to preventing tracking of your online identity.
Chrome: For Chrome we recommend disabling Instant if you have enabled it, because as the browser says, the Omnibox input may be logged; the option to disable this is in the basic options. Then, head over to the Under the Hood section and click on Content settings… . Once you are in there we recommend checking Block third-party cookies from being set and choosing Do not allow any site to track my physical location.
Like with Firefox, Ghostery is available for Chrome and can be installed by following this link. It allows you to see which websites are tracking you and manually stop them from doing so.
We also recommend Google’s very own Keep My Opt-Outs extension that permanently disables advertising personalization across Google’s services by a set of cookies. It’s good to see Google willing putting up an extension that takes care of this for you, and it's also available for Firefox and Internet Explorer
Finally we suggest installing A Little Privacy, which is a combination extension that blocks referrer URLS, removes redirect trackers and resolves short URLs so you know exactly where you are going. It does make changes to websites' code to prevent tracking, but the developer claims that most functionality of the website remains in-tact.
Internet Explorer: The first thing you should do if you plan on using Internet Explorer is update to the latest version. Then, thanks to Microsoft, you can use the in-built tracking protection feature to stop websites from tracking you. Click on the settings cog and then go to Safety > Tracking protection from the drop-down list.
Here you can click on the Get a Tracking Protection List online link to browse the Internet Explorer Gallery. We recommend choosing the first tracking protection list which is called the EasyPrivacy Tracking Protection List, as this is based on the EasyPrivacy subscription from AdBlock Plus. Clicking Add and then following the prompts will install this list for you and update it every week.
There aren’t any other especially brilliant features or extensions to mention when it comes to IE (except for the Google Opt-Out add-on), so you might want to consider switching to a different browser for advanced privacy control via add-ons.
Opera: With Opera the first step to take is tweak the in-built preferences. You can disable sending referrer information by pressing F12 and deselecting Send referrer information. Then press Ctrl+F12 to access the main preferences and go to Advanced > Network and deselect Enable automatic redirection and Enable geolocation.
If you are looking for more control over your online privacy it’s probably better to choose a browser like Firefox or Chrome as extensions in Opera are relatively new.
Safari: Safari is probably the worst browser for keeping private online (as we have mentioned before), and the only worthwhile extension to install is Ghostery that is also available for Chrome and Firefox. Get it here or alternatively ditch the browser for a better one.
Well, we have now provided you with a myriad of ways to regain your online privacy, whether it is taking the drastic measure of deleting your social networking accounts and using a proxy or simply installing a few browser add-ons and switching search engines.
If you find any other methods to keep private online, please let us know in the comments below and we’ll take a look and add them into this article. If you want any help implementing any of the methods we suggested above, don’t hesitate to ask in our forums.