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Protecting Your Online Privacy: 7 Simple Steps You Can Take Todayby@alizakr
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Protecting Your Online Privacy: 7 Simple Steps You Can Take Today

by Aliza RosenfelderMarch 10th, 2021
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Aliza Rosenfelder is the UK ambassador for Startups UK Ambassador at the LSE. She explains how to protect your online privacy using a virtual private network (VPN) and blocking ad trackers are key to protecting your privacy. She also explains how you can use Signal to keep your real age from being tracked down by companies and health providers. She advises you to use the VPN to avoid being tracked by your default browser and to use Google's search engine SearchEncrypt to avoid tracking your searches.

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I once tried to sign up to Tinder, only to find my age was 110. Not to brag, but I think I looked about 90 years younger. It also made me realise why I’d been receiving so many ads for hearing aids and equity release.

The fact that my age had been used to build a profile that followed me around the web I found a little unnerving. It changed how I treated going online and although some of what I’m saying may seem obvious, it’s information that I wish I’d known a long time ago. Everything I say below, I have tried at one point or another:

1. Use a Virtual Private Network (VPN)

A virtual private network (VPN) is a piece of technology that uses a public network to transmit encrypted data between a private network and a remote authorized user.

Browsing the internet without a VPN is like turning up naked to the beach. There are people who don’t mind flashing everything, but the majority want a little more privacy. Luckily there is a wide selection of VPNs that give you anonymity and security however you choose to browse.

2. Who needs your real age?

My grandmother until the day she died never admitted to being over 21. It’s a decision I understand more and more.

There is a limited selection of people, health providers and companies that need to know your real age. Beyond that, information about it is being used to sell you something — skin creams at a bargain £200 for example. When signing up to any new service think about whether it is really needed before disclosing it.

3. Sometimes you just need a Signal

Before 2021, the people I knew who used Signal included a bona-fide genius and a counterterrorism expert. If nothing else, this convinced me of its merits.

With Facebook’s decision to change the terms and conditions of WhatsApp, the app that Edward Snowden credited with keeping him alive experienced a surge in popularity.

Although Facebook speaks often about its desire for end to end encryption, who should I trust more with my data — a social network whose business model is predicated on ad revenue or a non-profit founded to protect free expression?

4. Rethink your default browser

A key aspect of ad revenue is the information gathered from tracking cookies in your browser. Where some browsers are built to track every website you visit, others are built with privacy in mind such as Tor and Brave.

Personally, I enjoy using Brave as it’s 6x faster than its closest competitor and there’s something incredibly satisfying about opening the browser to see the hours saved by blocking ad trackers.

5. Should you use Google?

The closest thing to a Catholic confessional in modern life is the Google search bar. However, much like a Catholic confessional it may know more about us than we’re comfortable with.

There are alternatives out there. DuckDuckGo was built on the promise that it does not track its users. Similarly, on the search engine SearchEncrypt your search history expires after 30 minutes of inactivity.

Alternatively, whenever you search something using Ecosia the ad revenue from your searches is used to plant trees. They also claim that every search request on Ecosia removes 1kg of Carbon Dioxide from the atmosphere.

6. Ad Block

Who likes ads? It is more likely that you will win the lottery than click on a banner ad. With that in mind, AdBlock Plus, 1BlockerX, and Ad Away do what their names imply and block ads on both your desktop and phone.

There are many more ad blockers out there, but the millions of people that use these services say far more about the intrusive nature of online advertising than I ever could.

7. Private email providers

Whenever a TV ad for a bank says “online banking is safe and secure”, I immediately think of all the teachers who used “pass” as their password.

Though it does not matter if your emails are end-to-end encrypted if you have a lousy password, it’s comforting to know that some email providers are not reading your emails trying to use the information to inundate you with ads.

The most famous of these privacy concerned mail providers is Proton Mail. It is based in Switzerland and has much stricter privacy protection than its US based counterparts.

There are many nuanced aspects of online privacy I have not touched on, but we’re living in a time where privacy is precarious and the steps outlined above can make a difference. What people wish to share is their prerogative, yet to unconsciously give away your private information is very different to making an active choice.

To conclude, I hope the adverts targeted at my elderly online profile for time-shares, earwax cleaning and retirement homes have not been in vain.