I first learned of online privacy from my dad. What initially struck me as paranoia–he hated making online payments–later turned into an understanding for concern over our online safety. Oftentimes, it was a balance of risk and convenience. I remember arguing with my dad over buying movie tickets online, and getting annoyed over his worry. Later, I read about threats to cyber security online and realized that buying tickets online probably isn’t worth losing your credit card info. Online privacy has become more concerning as I became an adult, with an identity, personal information, and finances of my own. I realized I was now responsible for my own data, and I needed to keep it safe. 

Online privacy refers to how much of your information remains private whenever you’re online.

Online privacy has become a growing concern as the Internet becomes more advanced and more complex. All of this revolves around online security: how data is acquired, where it’s stored, and whether it’s shared with third parties. 

Hacking has become a constant threat to online safety and privacy. There are countless stories of credit card numbers being sold online and personal identities being exchanged on chat rooms on the dark web. But identity theft is actually a legitimate concern as a lot of our information is stored online and can be accessed by hackers if it’s not protected well enough. Data breaches have become common, with companies spending vast amounts of money for cybersecurity. Malware attacks are also frequent and have affected companies and countries alike.

Online privacy has become a major concern, not just because of hackers and phishers, but because of corporations themselves. It’s become vital in a world where ‘free’ services like social media or third-party apps come with a hidden disclaimer: Nothing is actually free. In order to use these services, you’re asked to share your personal information. This can include your birth date, your gender, your likes and dislikes, your contacts, and more. What’s scary is that this data can be used by social media and third-party apps for a variety of purposes. For example, your data can be used to target you as a consumer, or it can be sold and gathered without your consent. It’s difficult to track how much data you’re asked to give out. Privacy policies by larger companies are complex, convoluted, and difficult for the everyday person to read and understand. After all, how many of us have fully read Terms and Conditions?

Internet privacy isn’t a clear black-and-white issue, but exists on the spectrum.

But this ranges from public information (like an online social media account) to compromised information (like targeted ads) to public embarrassment (like financial breaches, for example). Search engines track their users, logging what the searches are, and what sites you end up visiting. If the search engine also runs your browser (like Google Chrome), then they have your browsing history no matter what device you’re using–computer or cell phone.

The information collected creates a user profile, a persona based on your browsing, shopping, and social media. This persona is then used to create targeted ads. Social media, too, harvests your data and then uses it to for ads and posts. One popular example of this is the Cambridge Analytica story, where data was used to manipulate voters. 

It’s a direct result of how monopolies have been created in the tech industry, and how your data directly contributes to it, without your consent. Companies, like Google or Facebook, have created monopolies, often using unfair practices to steamroll over other competitors. These large companies need to be broken up to prevent a monopoly over the Internet, a complex and necessary tool that’s become the main source of information and communication.

Online privacy is challenging to protect because so many ‘free’ apps and websites use your data.

It’s difficult to navigate social media in particular, where you’re already expected to share your personal self online. It can result in unwarranted messages and even sexual harassment, and it’s difficult to protect yourself while still using social media because of how pervasive it has become.

Here are a few steps you can take righ now to protect your information and stay safe from target ads, manipulative posts, and data breaches.

  • Use a virtual private network (VPN). This routes your online activity through an encrypted virtual tunnel. It keeps your IP address and location a secret. It’s also used to access services and sites that aren’t available in your country.
  • Browse in incognito mode. This means your online history isn’t stored or remembered.
  • Use a different search engine. Search engines like DuckDuckGo are more private and secure than Google, and search engines like Ecosia donate 80% of its profits for reforestation.
  • Use a different browser. Using Google Chrome means that Google will still track your browsing history, regardless of what engine you use. Shifting browsers is another step to protect your information. Brave is a private, secure web browser with a built-in ad-blocker, to keep your web surfing ad-free. 

Thankfully, there are ways of staying safe and protecting yourself. In the meantime, transactions have gotten much more secure, so I don’t feel bad about booking movie tickets online. I try and stay cautious, using strong passwords, a VPN, and avoiding saving my passwords on browsers. It’s an issue that grows as technology gets more complex, but there are solutions. I’m glad my dad was able to instill a sense of precaution when we surfed the web, and for his sense of treading slowly in untested waters.  It’s a useful habit, and one that kept–and continues to keep–me and my data in the right hands.

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  • Natalia Ahmed

    Natalia Nazeem Ahmed is a budding writer and editor with a BA from Symbiosis School for Liberal Arts in Pune, India, with a major in English Literature and a double minor in Philosophy and Film Studies. An avid reader, her goal is to build a career out of her fiction and non-fiction writing. In her spare time, she loves to knit for her loved ones.