Global internet freedom declined for an eighth consecutive year in 2018, according to Freedom House’s annual Freedom on the Net report. This decline is being seen in dictatorships and democracies alike. As Freedom House noted, members of the Five Eyes intelligence alliance—the United States, Canada, United Kingdom, Australia, and New Zealand—recently called on companies to “voluntarily establish lawful access solutions” for encrypted content or face possible government intervention.
Internet users should be just as concerned about how private corporations and foreign governments use their online data, as the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica scandal and involvement of Russian hackers in the 2016 US Presidential Election demonstrate.
Fortunately, it’s not all bad news. The following are 10 simple steps that anyone can take to protect their privacy, anonymity, and security online.
1. Disable Cookies
Cookies are bits of data that websites collect about their users to help companies understand customer behavior. Although cookies cannot be used to identify you personally, they can be used to show you targeted ads—which some people view as an invasion of privacy. The European Union's General Data Protection Regulation, which came into effect in 2018, states that companies operating in EU member states must disclose any data collection to their users. While this goes some way to protecting consumers’ digital rights, users can take extra precaution by changing their cookie settings. Chrome, Safari, and other browsers let users block cookies and third-party cookies, force websites to obtain permission for each cookie, and delete all cookies when closing the browser.
Disabling cookies helps to protect your online privacy
2. Browse the Web in Incognito Mode (Private Browsing)
Private browsing, or Incognito mode as it’s known on Chrome, lets users browse privately without letting other people who use the same device see their activity. Incognito mode can be found in the Chrome settings. When switched on, Chrome won’t save your browsing history, cookies, or information entered in forms. However, your activity may still be visible to your internet service provider (ISP) or websites that you visit. Incognito mode goes some way to protecting your online privacy, but it isn’t as good as a VPN.
Private browsing helps to protect your online privacy
3. Use a VPN
Speaking of VPNs: this is one of the main ways to protect your online privacy, anonymity, and security all at the same time. A VPN, or virtual private network, is a service that redirects your connection to the internet through a remote server. There are many benefits to using a VPN. A VPN hides your data and personal details from website operators and ISPs, ensuring your full internet anonymity. It establishes a secure, encrypted tunnel between you and the websites you visit, protecting you from hackers. And logging onto a remote server in another country can get you around geo-blocking or cyber censorship.
VPN helps to protect your online privacy, anonymity, and security.
4. Check for DNS leaks
A VPN is the best all-round solution for protecting your internet privacy, but it can still leave potential holes. For example, your identity could potentially be exposed through what are known as DNS leaks. Fortunately, testing for a DNS leak is simple. Just log onto a VPN server outside your country and visit one of these sites: Perfect Privacy or IPLeak. If you have a DNS leak, it’s time to change your VPN provider!
Checking for DNS leaks helps to protect your online privacy and anonymity
5. Use OTR Encryption for Messaging
If you’re concerned about someone monitoring your instant messaging conversations, Off The Record messaging (OTR) can protect you. OTR encrypts messages in a way that ensures deniable authentication, meaning the identity of the participants cannot be proved by a third party. Windows users can download the Pidgin OTR plug-in while Mac users can protect themselves with Adium.
OTR encryption helps to protect your online anonymity and security
6. Use Encrypted Browsers Like Tor
For completely anonymous browsing, there’s the Tor browser. This browser directs traffic through a global network of more than 7,000 relays to conceal a user’s location and usage from anyone conducting network surveillance. Tor gives an extra layer of protection to a VPN. It is only really necessary for people who find themselves in real danger, such as political dissidents or whistle blowers looking to share information without having their identity revealed.
Encrypted browsers help to protect your online anonymity and security
7. Keep Your Social Media Activity Private
Perhaps the simplest step anyone can take to protect themselves on the internet is to turn their social media settings to private. In 2018, it was revealed that British company Cambridge Analytica had harvested the personal data of 87 million Facebook users. Cambridge Analytica didn’t break into Facebook users’ accounts, it merely used trickery to collect information from their public profiles. How do you avoid becoming a victim of the next social media scandal? Turn your settings to private and only share information with people you know and trust.
Turning your social media accounts to private helps protect your online privacy
8. Only Use HTTPS Links / Download ‘HTTPS Everywhere’ Add-On
You may have noticed that most URLs start with HTTPS, but some still begin with HTTP. HTTP stands for Hyper Text Transfer Protocol. The S stands for Secure, indicating that the connection between your browser and the website is encrypted. Users can force websites into HTTPS mode with HTTPS Everywhere, a browser extension developed by the Tor Project and the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
Using HTTPS links helps protect your online security
9. Protect Your Passwords, Using a PW Vault Like LastPass or Okta
It’s the ultimate dilemma for internet users: Use one password that is easy to remember but puts your internet security at risk? Or use many passwords, safeguarding your security but making it inevitable that you’ll eventually get locked out of your own email or bank account? Fortunately, password managers like LastPass and Okta can help you manage multiple passwords and protect your security. A password manager is like a secure vault for all your online passwords. With LastPass, for example, you just log in to websites straight from a browser extension.
Using password managers helps protect your online security
10. Use 2-Factor Authentication
Two-factor authentication adds an additional layer of authentication to the usual username or password. For example, some websites send you an SMS or call you with a 4-digit or 6-digit code that you need to type into a box to get access to your account. These days, the likes of Google, Apple and Fortnite all offer 2-factor authentication.
2-factor authentication helps protect your online security
This article contains a couple of important lessons: only you can protect your internet security, privacy and anonymity; and there is no one silver bullet for protecting yourself. Just like you wouldn’t necessarily install 10 different security measures to protect your home from break-in, there isn’t necessarily a need to implement all of the 10 solutions listed in this article. Rather, we provide this list as a guide to some of the ways in which people can protect their digital freedom, and we leave it up to our readers to decide which solutions are most suitable for their needs.