Our society relies heavily on the Internet for information, commerce, communication and entertainment. Increasingly, though, logging on comes with a distinct Big Brother-style unease. Many people are worried how much the Internet knows about them and would like to limit this information, but can’t find the right answers. Well, here they are. Below we’ve outlined some of the most salient questions Internet users have, as well as the best ways to protect yourself.
How the Internet Gathers Information
Pretty much everything we do online is tracked and recorded by search engines. Every time you visit a site, perform a search, click on a link, click on an ad, tweet your thoughts, send or receive an email, launch a website, use watch a video on YouTube, translate a string of text in another language, look something up on a map, or anything else, search engines record those actions. The information is collected and stored through cookies, IP address requests, and records created when you are logged into various online accounts.
What the Internet Knows About Most People
The Internet – let’s be honest, mainly Google – knows a whole heck of a lot about you. Among the most common information Google keeps track of:
- Your age and gender
- Your frequently visited sites
- The number of emails you’ve received in your life
- Your interests
- When you last logged on to the Internet
- What tabs you had open when you did
- Your behavior on a full 88 percent of all online domains
Of course, this is only a small sampling of what the Internet keeps track of. Depending on your online actions, it may also have information about your finances, family, pets, career and more.
Who Can Access This Information
The search engines, for one thing. Big names in search, such as Google, Bing and Yahoo, can access the information they’ve collected on you at any time. When you aren’t logged into an account online, this information tends to be slightly more anonymous. However, when you are logged in – say to your Yahoo Mail or Google account – often the info collected can be linked directly to you, across devices. Search engines often supply this information to third parties for a fee, because consumer data is a valuable way to target merchandise and services. Supposedly this data is not personalized, but it still makes many people uncomfortable.
How to Put Information Online Safely
If you’re like most consumers, you’re not going to stop using the Internet any time soon. But you can still practice safe online habits. These include:
- Signing out of all accounts when using a public computer, or even a shared computer in a private space
- Keeping your passwords in a secure place
- Using the right accounts for the right purposes, and logging in and out accordingly
- Using secure networks whenever sending private, financial, medical or other sensitive information
- Locking your screen or device when not in use
- Protecting your devices against malware
- Research e-commerce sellers and don’t use unfamiliar payment methods
Ways to Limit Your Online Presence
You can also limit your online presence. For instance, when simply browsing or using the Internet for entertainment purposes, log out of accounts that can help search engines track your doings. Check out as a guest on e-commerce sites to avoid creating lots of accounts on lots of different platforms, not all of which may be trustworthy. If you want, you can disable cookies on your browser so your movements aren’t immediately reported to search engines.
Sites to Trust (and NOT Trust)
There is no real secret here. Don’t trust sites you don’t know, especially if your browser warns against them. When visiting a new site, especially if you’re going to purchase something, review it beforehand. Leave sites that have obscene content, that have more ads than content, or that use a lot of popups and scammy approaches.
How to Deal with Disaster
Sometimes you can’t avoid catastrophe. If your identity or financial information is stolen, you should immediately take steps to counteract the problem. Follow this FTC Guide to responding to identity theft to minimize the damage and reduce the chances that it will happen again later. You can use many of the same steps in the case of financial information theft, though the Identity Victims Assistance Network offers specific steps.
Online safety is hard to ensure, but there are many steps you can take. Don’t wait to get started.