Why online privacy matters and how you can protect your data

Online privacy is a human right, but it is seldom treated that way by online services and ad networks that seek to profit from your data. Your privacy matters, and here are the reasons why.

It is becoming nearly impossible to stay private online. Technology is growing smarter by the day, and data tracking is the new norm. It’s no longer a surprise when Google wishes you happy birthday or when you receive constant reminders about your recent online purchases. But it’s not just marketing you should be worried about. So why does online privacy matter?

It’s your basic human right

The United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights affirms in Article 12(new window): “no one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy.” Even as technology has tested the practical limitations of this right, lawmakers and international bodies have recognized the importance of privacy and have tried to strengthen protections. In 2015, the UN Human Rights Council appointed(new window) a new UN special expert to monitor online privacy issues. The European Union is also treating privacy as a priority; its General Data Protection Regulation(new window), which takes effect this year, is the most important change to data privacy regulation in the last 20 years.

Lack of online privacy makes you vulnerable

Whenever you do anything online you leave behind a traceable and effectively permanent trail of data known as your “digital footprint.” Your digital footprint can give others insight into your behaviors, your health information, your sleeping patterns, your shopping habits, and much more. All these data can be accessed by multiple businesses for targeting purposes. Simply open any search engine and type in your name and you will be shocked to see how much information about you is there already. This can put your reputation or even your physical safety at risk: One common form of harassment is to create fake online profiles using freely available photos and biographical data. The more you share, the less control you have over how your data are used.

The risk to freedom of expression

Privacy is a fundamental component of freedom of expression. Privacy protections are crucial for certain groups, such as journalists, politicians, or activists, to avoid intimidation and harassment for their ideas. While privacy is important for ordinary people, in the case of these special actors it becomes central to the work of democracy. Therefore, it is in all of our interest to defend the right to online privacy.

It can affect your reputation

Most of us have at least one or two embarrassing stories we would like to keep private. Fifty years ago, it wasn’t difficult to protect those secrets. But in the digital age, stories may remain alive with the help of your digital footprint. Personal data collected online, stripped of context, can affect your reputation and your job prospects. Taken to the extreme, governments could use personal data to construct “social credit” rankings of citizens, as China is already doing(new window).

Protect your privacy online and stay safe

There is no way to totally ‘turn off’ or ‘delete’ your digital footprint. But by taking some precautions you can minimize the information you share and take back control.

Use private browsing

Modern browsers, such as Chrome or Firefox, have an incognito or private mode that prevents the storage of browsing history, cookies, and web cache data on your device. This means other people who use your device will not be able to see the pages you have visited while in private mode, and websites and advertisers cannot use third-party cookies to track you across the web. While private browsing will not make you invisible online, it does offer a few handy benefits.

Use a VPN to protect your Internet traffic

When you use a VPN, instead of directly connecting to a website, you first establish an encrypted tunnel with a VPN server. All your traffic passes through the VPN server before entering the public network. This masks your IP address(new window) and reduces the chances someone can spy on your online activity. For even more anonymity, you can connect to Tor(new window), though this can affect performance.

But be careful: The VPN company has access to all your data, too. It’s very important to choose a service that has established its trustworthiness(new window), collects as little information about you as possible, and does not sell your data to third parties.

Use end-to-end encrypted email

Corporate data breaches have affected millions of people. Hackers have gotten into the servers of some of the largest companies in the world, including Yahoo!, LinkedIn, and Tumblr, stealing passwords, phone numbers, and credit cards. Switching to an encrypted email provider(new window) with end-to-end encryption and zero-access encryption provides a technical solution to this problem.

ProtonMail’s end-to-end encryption(new window) protects emails while in transit, and all emails stored on Proton Mail servers are protected with zero-access encryption, so even a breach won’t leak any private communications (Yahoo! Mail hack victims weren’t so lucky).

Use encrypted messaging apps

Make sure you use encrypted messaging apps for chatting with friends or colleagues. Like Proton Mail, services such as Signal(new window) and Wire(new window) provide end-to-end encryption and are open source.

Privacy through security

Data security is the first step to privacy, and there are a number of strategies(new window) you can use to secure your devices and accounts. Device encryption is a simple way to ensure that even if your machine is lost or stolen, your information cannot be accessed. Windows and Mac both support device encryption and you can find guides here: Windows/Mac. Android and iOS also support encryption(new window). Next, choose strong passwords. You should choose a different, complex password for all of your accounts. A password manager can help you keep track of them. Finally, it is important to use two-factor authentication (2FA)(new window) whenever possible. We recommend using 2FA apps rather than SMS-based 2FA because SMS can be more easily compromised.

Always read the privacy policy

Carefully read the privacy policy when downloading apps or using services online. You will be surprised to know how many companies share your private data with third parties. If possible, make sure you restrict access to mobile or laptop data, such as your location.

Stay alert!

If you want to minimize your digital footprint and maintain your online privacy, you need to take matters into your own hands. Make sure you and your family follow the precautions above to reduce the chance your data will be misused. It’s better to be safe now than sorry later.

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