What is internet privacy and how should you protect your online privacy?

5 min read
Osman

I like to think about the impact that the internet has on humanity. In my free time, I'm wolfing down pasta.

A person looks at a computer screen as a camera watches from behind.

We use the internet for just about everything in our personal and private lives—and what we do online has become valuable data.

Large corporations want to track our activity so they can serve us with targeted advertisements. Internet service providers (ISPs) might wish to keep tabs on our digital behavior so that they can throttle access to certain sites or map our habits to sell to the highest bidder. Some governments surveil their citizens’ online to ensure they aren’t criticizing them or reading inflammatory material. And hackers can use stolen information to impersonate others.

The fact is the internet today is a privacy minefield and you must navigate it with extreme caution.

What is internet privacy?

Think of internet privacy as the online extension of the right to privacy in your home, for example.

You surely don’t want your neighbors watching what you do in the comfort and safety of your home. Nor would you want the police to keep knocking on your door. Both actions are invasive and detrimental to your mental health. Why should the internet be any different?

Even the United Nations agrees, saying that “that the rights held by people offline must also be protected online,” adding that all member states should “respect and protect the right to privacy in digital communication.”

Why is online privacy important?

We all have things that we wish to keep confidential and private. This isn’t necessarily something to be ashamed of; after all, would you want your neighbours or acquaintances to know how much money you have in your bank account or the details of your medical records?

Since so much of our lives has now shifted to the internet, most of our personal information is stored on servers that we have no access to. For example, email has replaced physical letters for the most part; in the past you would be distressed if you caught someone tampering with your mailbox, and the same principle should apply to your email inbox.

Online privacy is important because it guards the facets of your life that you wish to keep private and secure. When you’re getting ready for bed, one of the first things you might do is draw your curtains, immediately giving you the space and comfort you need. In the online world, it’s harder to draw the line between your personal and public life because of the lack of physical boundaries.

But guarding your privacy online is crucial in preventing malicious entities from stealing your personally identifiable information and attempting identity theft. You might also want to prevent advertisers from tracking your movements online and building a digital profile about you. Below we’ll discuss ways you can protect your online privacy and security.

Common internet privacy issues and examples of privacy violations

There are several ways that your privacy could be violated on the internet. Let’s take a look at them and discuss privacy violations in the wild.

1. Browser tracking

Whenever you visit a website, your browser generates a “cookie” to record the session and resulting activity. These cookies deplete search engine privacy as they allow players like Google a peek into your browsing preferences in order to help them develop robust marketing tactics. That’s why you often see advertisements from the sites you had just visited or products you browsed through.

2. Government surveillance

Remember the Snowden revelations in which he revealed how the NSA spies on you? What made these revelations worse was that, technically, they weren’t completely illegal, since they were legitimized under the U.S. Patriot Act.

There are other governments around the world that give security agencies the legal mandate to monitor and track residents. The UK’s Investigatory Powers Act is one. India’s Information Technology Act 2000 is another example.

3. Identity theft

Hundreds of thousands of Americans fall prey to identity theft each year. In 2019, more than $1.9 billion USD were lost due to identity theft; the burden of which mostly fell to ordinary consumers. That’s due to things like malware, spyware, phishing attacks, and other brazen tactics to steal your identity — making it even more crucial to secure your PII online.

Tips for protecting your online privacy and security

We’ve added links to several resources below that should help you protect yourself online, but here are a few at-glance best practices.

1. Keep your software updated at all times

There are several reasons to rely on automatic software updates. Zero-day exploits, or security flaws that don’t have an existing solution, can only be quashed with a software update. Furthermore, software updates are designed to improve user experience, fix errors, and add new functionality.

2. Only use sites with an “HTTPS” padlock. Alternatively, rely on HTTPS Everywhere

Notice the small padlock next to the web address on your browser? That indicates a secure, encrypted connection between your device and the website you’re visiting. To safeguard your online privacy and security, we recommend that you only visit websites that are HTTPS secured. Sites without this incorporate lax security protocols, making it easier for hackers to steal your data in transit. Using HTTPS Everywhere on your browser can protect you, too, and it’s incorporated into ExpressVPN’s browser extensions for Chrome and Firefox.

3. Browse the internet with a browser that safeguards your privacy

Not all browsers are created equal. Some collect your data and relay it back to remote servers. Others have been known to log things like bandwidth usage and session details. The most private browsers won’t collect data of any nature, helping you stay completely anonymous online. Our guide ranks the security of popular web browsers.

4. Only connect to public Wi-Fi with a VPN

VPNs route your internet traffic through an encrypted tunnel, adding a layer of security to your online activity. This helps guard against the risks of using public Wi-Fi. If you value your privacy, make sure to use a VPN.

5. Choose a strong password and don’t share it with anybody

While things like two-factor authentication can boost your security, we maintain that your password, which is essentially your first line of defense, should be ironclad too. Choose a strong alphanumeric password and don’t give it away. This seems obvious, but you would be surprised at how many people don’t follow these basic practices.

If you’re not sure how to pick a strong password, use our random password generator.

6. Use an antivirus program

Antivirus software has several advantages. It can help you guard against threats buried deep in your system files, while also allowing you to maintain adequate security if you’re using outdated systems. Don’t skimp on antivirus software, as it goes a long way in maintaining your online security and privacy.

I like to think about the impact that the internet has on humanity. In my free time, I'm wolfing down pasta.