Tips to keep your online privacy intact

Is there such a thing as online privacy anymore?

The recent evidence might suggest that there's not:

  • AT&T's 3G network is hacked, revealing thousands of iPad owners' email addresses. The company later suffers another breach during the iPhone 4 launch, accidentally allowing customers to log into other customer's accounts.
  • A 23 year old hacker gains access to over 4 million users' private information on Pirate Bay.
  • Mobile security firm Lookout releases the results for its App Genome Project, indicating that 47% of Android phone apps contain third party code and over 30% of iPhone apps access user location data.
  • Ron Bowes of Skull Security collects profiles for over 100 million Facebook users and then posts them online for download. Gizmodo reports that a lengthy list of major corporations downloads the file.

How bad is it?  The recent Black Hat security conference, dedicated to improving information security discovered that their supposedly secure video feed could be hacked and viewed for free.

Scary, isn't it?  When even the experts can't keep everything locked down, what hope is there for the rest of us?

The scary truth is that online privacy is a fading notion.  Even divorce lawyers are getting in on the act.  The AP's Leanne Italie reports in her article "Facebook is divorce lawyers' new best friend" that 81% of lawyers belonging to the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers have used evidence from Facebook or other social networking sites in their cases.    

While the slow erosion of our online privacy is something to be concerned with, it's not a lost cause.  There are things, even simple things that you can do to protect your online privacy and increase your information security.  The simplest solution to the problem is to follow the old adage - if you want something done right, do it yourself.

  • Tighten your privacy settings: Remember that Facebook, MySpace, and other social sharing sites want your information to be shared. That's why the default privacy settings are usually as loose as they can be. But Facebook, and many other similar sites, offer customizable privacy settings that allow you to limit who can see what. Limit sensitive data, like email addresses and phone numbers, to only your friends, to better protect your privacy.
  • Share less: If there's something about you - information or a picture - that you don't want the world to potentially see, then don't share it online. Pictures showing you out drinking or partying, for example, might be something you want to keep to yourself and out of the hands or possible employers or even from family. The easiest way to keep info private is to not share it at all.
  • Use dedicated e-mail accounts: Thinking of signing up for Facebook or starting a blog? Worried that you'll be flooded with spam and phishing e-mails if you do? Then take the steps to protect your e-mail and set up dedicated e-mail addresses, something like "myspamaccount@gmail.com", for example. Use this account for your social networking sites and other online activities. That way, if you do become a victim of spam or other unwanted e-mails, your primary e-mail is still safe and protected.
  • Adjust your browser: Not all privacy threats come from social networking. Tracking cookies are a common aspect of the Internet experience. If you surf the web, and especially if you shop online, you will encounter cookies. They are mostly harmless and don't really require you to take any sort of action. However, if you're concerned, cookies can be deleted or even blocked. Most browsers will allow you to delete them with the rest of your Internet history information. Many cautious users do this at the end of every browsing session. Also, if you're not sure how to manage cookies with your browser, there are many helpful websites that can guide you through the process.
  • Educate yourself: Online privacy is a serious issue. Groups like Lookout and Black Hat study it constantly to provide the general public with the most comprehensive information and protection tips. Study the issue online and learn as much as you can, so that you may better understand what you need to do to protect your information.

Online privacy is, in many ways, fading away.  But that doesn't have to mean that every bit of data or every sensitive piece of information about you has to become public.  By educating yourself on the various matters of online privacy, and by taking those matters into your own hands, you can decide how to best protect yourself and your information. 

David A. Milman, Founder and CEO of Rescuecom

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