Posted by Staff Writers on July 27, 2011
While the internet is a great way for users to gain quick access to relevant information and gives shoppers the ability to purchase products from the comforts of their own home, cyberspace is also a potentially hazardous and dangerous realm. If not accessed with caution, users can be exposed to all sorts of man-made computer viruses and hackers. These threats can erase all of the important documents from your hardware and exploit sensitive information for personal gain, for example. While spyware and anti-virus software is designed to catch potential hackers and viruses respectively, they are not always 100 percent effective. In fact, according to the most recent FBI statistics, despite the fact that some were protected by anti-spyware and anti-virus software, 303,809 people were victims of cybercrimes in 2010—good chunk of them victims of identity theft.
With that said, computer users and web surfers shouldn’t solely rely on purchased computer protection services to ensure that their information isn’t exposed or deleted. In an effort to serve as a reliable resource for parents, children, professionals, and all computer users, this guide highlights some practical ways people can protect their privacy online.
Investigate Web Site Privacy Policies
Create Separate E-mail Accounts
Often employees are given a specific e-mail address that is designed to be used for work-related purposes only. With that said, it is highly important that you don’t abuse your work e-mail address and use it for its true purpose. Meaning, do use your work e-mail to send personal messages. This is because your employer legally has the right to read any and all e-mail correspondences that took place on your work e-mail account/server at any time he or she wishes.
- Washington State Office of the Attorney General offers a complete guide to e-mail safety and etiquette, including tips on how one should properly CC within the workplace to ensure information is not exploited.
Encrypt your E-mail
Even if you separate your work and personal e-mail accounts, that doesn’t mean that your e-mails can’t be accessed by an unwanted third party. This is because e-mails in general are not as safe as many like to believe. Once an e-mail is sent into cyberspace, it can be stored and accessed indefinitely. In fact, anything that is sent into cyberspace can be accessed in any point in time, even if it is “deleted.” But thankfully there are certain programs that allow users to encrypt their e-mails in an effort to protect their privacy and make accessing those e-mails a little tougher. Note that some e-mail programs such as Internet Explorer Outlook already have encryption.
- University of Colorado at Boulder offers an article that explains how Windows, Macintosh and Unix platform users can encrypt e-mails.
- Electronic Privacy Information Center provides a listing of a variety of secure e-mail programs that use encryption. Some programs are free, others are not.
Warn Children not give Personal Info to Strangers
While federal law mandates that companies are forbidden from collecting personal information from children who are under 13 without parental consent, there are some web sites that choose not to abide by the law and children who proceed to scour certain web sites without their parent’s permission. This can leave a child venerable to an enormous amount of threats, including child predators. Thus it’s important that parents stress to their children the importance of not giving out personal information such as their name, address, phone number or anything else that may jeopardize their safety without asking you first. This should also include sharing information on social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter and “friending” users that your child does not know.
- The Federal Trade Commission provides a pdf that explains who needs to comply with the law and how parental consent must be obtained. Some methods include a toll-free phone call or e-mail with a complying signature for example.
- Electronic Privacy Information Center offers a detailed history of the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, as well as timely news articles relating to the subject.
Clear the Memory Cache
Many users are unaware that when someone is finished browsing the web, the cache stores and makes copies of all of the web sites, pages and images that one has shuffled through. While this stored information is designed to increase the browser’s loading speed if one decides to look at those particular websites again, this can jeopardize your personal privacy, especially if you share a computer at work or at home for example. Thus it’s usually best to delete your web browsing history by clearing out your cache.
- Information Technology Division provides an article that offers step-by-step directions on how to clear cache’s from the most popular web browsers including Mozilla Fire Fox, Safari, Internet Explorer and Google Chrome.
Make sure that online Web Pages are Secure
Some web pages are left open so that anyone can access the information, while others are purposely encrypted so that only specific users have access to the info—all online shopping pages should be encrypted to protect sensitive banking information. While most companies that deal with the transaction of personal information make an effort to ensure that pages are encrypted, it’s always be to double check that the web page is secure before entering specific data in order to protect your privacy.
- GetSafeOnline provides some common ways a user can ensure that a web page is secure; includes a listing of some common questions that secure web pages will ask its users and how to use the SSL protocol to validate a web page’s identity.
Reject or Delete Unnecessary Cookies
In short, cookies are minuscule pieces of coded computer information that is installed on your hard drive every time you click on a website. While cookies are designed keep track of your online activity and serve as an internet user’s identification card—they keep track of returning user’s passwords, usernames and preferences or registration information to speed up loading time and transactions—companies do in fact use the information to investigate the demographics of particular website and for marketing purposes. In addition, cookies enable third parties to create a profile of you without you even knowing.
About Cookies provides a detailed guide that explains how to delete cookies from the most popular web browsers including Mozilla Fire Fox, Safari, Internet Explorer and Google Chrome.
About Cookies also offers step-by-step directions on how to control or reject cookies for all major web browsers.
Use Anonymous Remailers
Sometimes there are pesky websites that won’t allow you to access information without entering an e-mail address. Other times, you would like to e-mail someone without the letter being traced back to you. For instances mentioned above, a good way to get what you want without having to expose or share personal information is to use anonymous remailers. Like the name suggests, it allows users to send e-mails anonymously. Note that anonymous remailers should only be used for “lawful purposes” not to spam or harass others.
- Government Security offers a further explanation of what anonymous remailers are, who would need to use them, what makes a good anonymous server and explains why there are only about a dozen servers available.
- Global Internet Liberty Campaign offers an active free anonymous remailer.
As you may have already gathered, just about everything you do online can be monitored, including as early as when you type in a web address in the URL. Bottom line: Anonymity is very hard to come across online. However, there are certain programs that can help you disguise information you might not be too comfortable sharing such as your IP address and user information in order to help protect both privacy and anonymity. While there are some programs that are free, a majority of them require a subscription fee like Anonymizer.
- Diglet is a free anonymizer that promises to protect users against harmful content like viruses and spyware by providing a filter designed to hide IP addresses.
Opt-out of third party information sharing
As a legal right, consumers are allowed to “opt-out” of having their information being distributed to outside sources. Or in other words, consumers are able to request that they get off of particular lists that are given to third parties such as marketers. Sometimes online companies will make the process opting out fairly easy, other times companies make consumers jump through huge hurdles before they can get off of the list serves. Whatever the case, always choose to opt-out if you don’t want to be bothered by telemarketers and spam e-mails.
- SelectOut is an organization that is not only designed to allow users to view which companies are tracking them online but also allows users to “opt-out” of several companies at once.
Just use Common Sense
While these tips mentioned above with the combination of anti-spyware and anti-virus software should help safe guard your protection, if something appears sketchy or suspicious, always trust your gut feeling. For instance, does a particular web site really need your physical address? Does the online vendor or company appear to be legitimate and established? Approaching cyberspace as you would the physical world should be able to ensure your protection and privacy.