In recent surveys, more than 95% of Americans say they were at least somewhat concerned about how intent companies use their data, especially browsing history, and not to mention the US Government’s NSA continue to violate American’s Internet Privacy Rights or other governments around the world. Whether you are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer (LGBTQ) or straight, what you do online can reveal a lot about you. Perhaps way more than you would be knowingly comfortable with sharing with others.
All of your online activity from your internet searches, your social media activities, the apps you download, and the activity and content you provided on those apps all have the potential to be exposed in some way or another. For many, they may not feel it’s a big deal and a price we pay in today’s modern world. For others, it could mean losing a job or even being imprisoned for who they are as human beings – LGBTQ. In recent months Grindr (Chinese controlled), the gay “dating” app has been under fire as a security risk for its gross negligence of user privacy providing sexual orientation and even HIV status to hundreds of marketing agencies and the Chinese government. Further, also earlier this year the hot mobile app TikTok (another Chinese controlled company), also was cited as an imminent security risk also due to its flaws allowing hackers to control accounts simply with texts. The US Department of Defense warns everyone to not use TikTok.
Just Ask Google
You’ve heard the saysing and likely have said it yourself, “Just Ask Google”. Sounds great, except when it comes to your private information.
Google tracks its user’s information for several reasons. For one thing, the company wants to make its services more efficient. Knowing your search history can help bring more relevant results to the top of future searches. This can be helpful and convenient, but it’s not all Google does with your data. They also use it to advertise more effectively. This means that advertisers can target their campaigns at people based on their demographic, sexual orientation, gender identity, political affiliation, or even personality type all from you directly providing it or from them deducing it from all your online habits, searches, site/page visits and such.
Creepy Ads That Follow You Around
I’m sure you’ve experienced looking at a product on a website or doing a search for a topic, then all a sudden those products or services are all the sudden showing up in advertisements on totally unrelated websites you visit. It is called Ad Retargeting. It can seem a bit creepy. So you may have been searching for Egyptian Cotton sheets and now seeing advertisements all over for that product. No harm right? Well, think about the other products you search for online and sites you visit. Yes, the search engine companies are tracking all that too. You may not see retargeting ads simply because merchants haven’t set up ad retargeting promotions that leveraging Cookies discussed in a bit. But rest assured, most internet search engines KNOW.
What Can You Do to Increase Your Internet Privacy, Safety, and Security?
Go ahead, it’s not vanity here. You should do it. How about jump down to the No-Tracking Browser section and try a few other browsers for this.
Do a search on your name. You may consider adding your location in the search if your name is not super unique – like John Smith. You will find that some sites have your name, home address, phone number, email account, and other information. Often these are public information aggregation sites trying to sell you or others access to the full record. For the most part, those are harmless.
If you find any site that has questionable data, use the site’s contact form to request the information to be removed.
No Longer Used Apps and Websites
When searching for yourself online you may come across profiles on apps or websites that you completely forgot about you use to use. Maybe you signed up once a long time ago and never used it since. It is a good idea to log onto those apps or sites to finally officially delete the account. You may have to use the Forgot Password feature to set a new password to access the account. If you no longer use and/or have access to the email associated with the account, use the site’s Contact Us form, or Support features to inform the app/website administrators that you once had an account under the email and that you no longer have access to that account and would like the account removed or set to your new email. They may ask you to provide some form of identification to assure you are the person associated with the account. This can take some time and effort on your part, but so worth having all that cleaned up instead of lingering out there.
Job Hunting – Clean Up
Along with this, keep in mind that potential employers will search your name like as above to try to find information about you in addition to looking at popular sites like LinkedIn and Facebook. The less info out there, likely the better. If you have your Facebook account open (public) consider setting it so that only those directly connected with you can view your profile. Also consider going through all those past postings, photos you are tagged in, and photos you uploaded and removing the tags or aking the other person to remove the photo, and clean up your past posting and photo to the bare minimum and job hunting friendly. Photos to highly consider removing are those where you are nearly naked, and looking like you are a party animal. I like to have my fun too, but consider, especially if job hunting, how those may look to a future employer – or a new romantic potential.
Mobile Apps – Limit It
Just because others are on an app doesn’t mean you should be on the same apps. Choose wisely and limit the number. Studies indicate that LGBTQ persons use “dating” sites and apps significantly more than heterosexuals. So, if on mobile “dating” apps and sites, consider limiting the information you provide both in profiles and via message chats. That naughty pic you send could end up in the hands of more recipients than you intended. If you must use location sharing, set it to Only When Using the App – otherwise, it may be tracking your every move. Additionally, this also helps save the battery life of your device.
People Aren’t Always Looking to Date
Ok, we know this by the sheer number of profiles that have “married” and “in a relationship” in their status. OK – not judging. But, if on those apps/sites there are also dubious players trying to run scams and phishing for personal information. One current scam that has been around for a while yet still active is a profile that will have a fairly attractive person with a fit body tap, woof, wink, etc. your profile. On Grindr on their profile will often say “via Explorer) which is not Internet Explorer, it is Grindr Explore where you can set the location you want to browse. The profiles state they are looking for love, a life partner, a soul mate, that communication is key, and more often than not that (for the guys) they are versatile – covering their sexual bases. There are a couple of approaches, such as stating they are a military service member currently stationed overseas and returning home in a few months. All that is trying to engage your sense of nationalism, fantasy, and hope. Sick really and as a US Army Veteran, I am disgusted by them using the military in their ploy.
I have heard from several sources, and have experienced some myself up to a point, that after some time of “getting to know you” they will come up with some excuse and ask you to transfer money to them. Sometimes they will claim they want to give you money and in order to do so, they must have your bank account website login information. HELLO, with just an email address there are many ways you can send me money if you really want to – RIGHT? PayPal to name just one, heck even Facebook has a feature to send another person money. There is no legitimate reason to provide a complete stranger your bank account information let alone access your bank’s website login.
Once Posted – It is Out There
Keep in mind that once you post anything, be it a comment, a “like”, a share, an article, a photo, it is out there. Even if you delete it, it still has the potential to be out there. When you delete from a website or app, the content is usually not really deleted, it’s just turned off from your visible profile. Sites like Facebook inform that when you delete posting and photos, they may still exist on other people’s timelines. Some data even if “deleted” is retained on servers associated with your account just in case they offer and Undo feature and for legal purposes. Another way no matter the platform, others may do a screen capture, copy, and/or download it.
For each and every app and website, review its Privacy Settings. Make the choices that you are most comfortable with. We recommend setting every one as restrictive as possible. Opt out of the site using and/or sharing your information with 3rd parties. We cannot possibly list all websites and apps, but here are some top sites and links to instruction on how to set your privacy on each:
Want to recommend other sites with linked to their privacy settings documentation? Great. Please add in the comments and I will update the article periodically.
If an app or website provides instant notification of changes, turn those on. These can alert you to things such as when your account is logged in from a new device or location when you are tagged in photos when a password is reset and much more. Each app and website options may vary so you should look at this on EVERY single one.
Search the website or app for Double or Two-Step Authentication or do an internet search for the website or app name and those terms to attempt to location user documentation if it has it. Here are a few popular site links to user documentation that have two-step authentication.
Consider setting up some Google Alerts that get sent to your email when new content on the internet becomes available. We recommend setting one up for your name, and then the name of all apps and websites you have accounts on plus adding keywords like “security”, “breach”, “leak” and so forth. That way if any app or site is reported on having a Security Breach in some way, you will know as soon as possible.
Cookies, first what are they. Nope. Not yummy peanut butter chocolate chip or oatmeal raisin and walnuts. We are talking about calorie-free small bits of code sent by a website to a site visitor’s computer/device to help the website remember stuff and provide the user with a rich experience. Some cookies are long term meaning that when you leave a site and later return, they help make your return more convenient. Other cookies are called session cookies that are only active during your logged in online sessions. Some cookies in today’s world may be active even when you are not on the site such as location tracking and push notification. They may track whats is in your shopping cart – have you put things in a shopping cart, left the site, then returned and all the items are still there? Sure you have. That’s cookies at work.
Are Cookies Safe?
Under normal circumstances, cookies cannot transfer viruses or malware to your device. Because the data in a cookie doesn’t change when it travels back and forth, it has no way to affect how your computer runs. However, some viruses and malware may be disguised as cookies. To a degree, third-party tracking cookies may cause concerns about privacy and security concerns, since they make it easier for malious actors to trace what you are doing online couple with browser history data. I advise you to review the cookies your browser has stored and manage them by clearing those associated with sites or services you don’t actively use or are completely unknown to you.
To Clear All or to Manage – That is the Question
If you set your browser to clear all browser history, the worst case it that it will not have the history to auto-fill website URLs as you begin typing. Yes, that is serious about it. If you don’t mind typing out the full website URL, then it will have next to no impact on your internet surfing experience. Just a few more keyboard strokes. Retaining all that browser history has the potential to expose your browsing habits to dubious or unethical internet companies and such. It also could be easily viewed by anyone with access to your device.
Cookies are why when you visit Facebook, LinkedIn and Google you don’t have to relog in day after day. They rember the on site searches, and other stuff. Would it hurt if your 100% cleared all cookies each time your browser closes? Well, only you can answer that. You may always try it for a short period. In Chrome you have options to block particular sites from adding cookies, specify a site to clear on browser exit and white list sites.
I do A LOT of internet browsing in what I do. I will be honest and say it’s been quite a while since I looked at my own cookies. Tonight I managed them and spent around 45 mintues deleting hundreds of cookies out of my browser. I took 3 passes at it and got it down to only cookies I really recognized the website AND use on a regular basis. Here are a few of the rules I used:
- Lots of cookies where obvious they were for advertising tracking – GONE.
- Tons where from sites I only visited due to my work and likely have little reason to return and if I do, they will just see it as a “new visitor” or I have no real reliance on so no big deal – GONE.
- Any cookie that I had no idea what it was and many had odd names, lots of characters and numbers yet means nothing to me – GONE.
- Even some sites I likely will visit again yet I know they track visits and then have a paywall – say after reading beyond 3 articles they close the gate so you pay – GONE start fresh at zero.
For now I’m going to schedule once a month on my calender to do this exercise. It then should only take around 10 minutes or so. Consider giving that a try.
No-Tracking Internet Browsing
Along with browsing history tracking, you might use your laptop or mobile device to connect to internet hotspot while you are out and about, say having a coffee. Those internet connection services sure are handy, yet they are also opportunities for dubious players to snoop on your activity, steal your information, or even infect your device with malware or viruses. A Virtual Private Network (VPN) can not only protect you from hacks, but they also allow you to browse the web anonymously without the fear of being monitored or tracked. In testing the below I found their search results are very on par with Google and Bing. It may even be in some cases better because they aren’t taking all your past search history, browsing history, or location into account. Sure other sites, if you search for “Best Ice Cream Shop”, may first show you local ice cream shops but that is also forcing the assumption that is what I’m searching for. Sometimes to get national results on Google I’ve had to turn off local and use their incognito version instead of them just providing what I asked for. If I wanted “Best Icecream shops in Fort Lauderdale”, that would have been my search.
Top No-Tracking Internet Search Options: