11 minute read

While we enjoy a certain level of privacy in the real world, life online doesn’t really work that way. Imagine walking down the street with someone following your every move, taking detailed notes of everything you did. Every store you looked at, every stop you made, catalogued and stored without any explanation. You wouldn’t put up with that, would you? That would be creepy, right?

What if we told you that every time you use a connected device, companies are ignoring your right to privacy? Whether it’s your physical location, your desire to know a piece of information, or an item that you’ve purchased, all that personal information is noted and stored somewhere. Most people don’t feel how equally creepy this is because it isn’t happening in an immediate way. They can’t see it, so they feel like it doesn’t affect them.

2019 is just getting started, so it's your perfect chance to make this year more privacy conscious by taking stock of your online presence. It's time to get reacquainted with apps you downloaded years ago and barely use now. While you’re at it, you should look at the apps you use everyday and make sure you’re still comfortable with the amount of information you share with them. To get you started, here are some helpful suggestions on account settings to look out for, where to find privacy information in popular social media services and why you should be concerned with how much data they have.

Take a rough app inventory

What do you use to access the internet? A phone, maybe a laptop or desktop? How about a tablet? Do you have a smart TV? An constantly listening speaker? A fridge with WiFi? Every connected device you use shares some kind of personal information. To start learning about the amount of information you share, you need to look at your device’s Privacy Policies and Terms of Service. For example, TunnelBear has an easy to read Privacy Policy written in plain English. If something you use doesn’t have a clear stance on privacy, it’s safe to assume the worst and think about cutting that service out of your life.

Once you have an idea of the number of connected devices you’re using, look at the apps on those devices. Can they download new ones? Did they come pre-programmed? Can you delete them? What do they do? Do they need internet access? Do they even have apps? Obviously for things like streaming services, they’ll need access to the internet to work, but if a calculator asks for internet access, you have a problem.

Regularly auditing your app permissions, and paying close attention to permissions when downloading new apps for your devices, is an important part of securing your data. Take a good look at the permissions each app requires before you download it. If you look at the image below, you'll see TunnelBear needs access to your WiFi and network connections in order to encrypt and route and secure your browsing properly. To the right, you'll see permissions for a popular flashlight app asking for things that don’t make sense. Flashlights, like a lot of "productivity" apps, don't need your GPS data, read access to your hard drive, or network access to function.

secure-privacy_extra

Understand your online footprint

For many people, Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat and Instagram have become their main sources for news and communication. Surprisingly, a lot of people know social media services package and sell their data, but they ignore the privacy trade-off because it doesn't outweigh the perceived convenience those services provide.

Social media companies offer their services for “free” so they can collect and sell your most personal moments, but without things like Facebook, many people feel like they would lose contact with family and friends. People actually site keeping track of social events as one of the number one reasons they can’t give up Facebook.

Taking time to honestly think about whether or not you need social media services in your life is an important step to securing your privacy. Figuring out which social media services you use regularly, and can’t live without, will help remove some of the information you regularly share.

Check your account settings

Once you know which social apps you want to keep, take a good look at your account settings, specifically sharing, privacy, and security settings. You can get started with these links for account settings on Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat and Google. Have a good look at each one, and see how comfortable you are with each setting.

For instance, if you check your settings tab in Snapchat and swipe down to “Who Can…”, you can change settings for who can send you snaps, view your stories, see your physical location, and whether or not they can quick add you. If you want to see how much Snapchat knows about you, tap “My Data” and prepare for a shock (and a long wait, it can take a few days before you receive a link).

On Facebook, you’ll want to spend some time getting acquainted with their Help Centre, specifically the “Your Profile Settings” and “Keeping Your Account Secure” sections. When you’re done, head over to their Privacy Basics page. There’s a lot to take in, which should explain why Facebook knows so much about you.

Start using secure messaging apps

If you only use social media to keep up with events and invitations, you never post things, and aren’t messaging people in-app, you don’t even need social apps on your device. You can always log in through a web browser that doesn’t track you to read your updates. That won't stop the social site from scooping up all the data it can from your logging in, but it'll block some of the tracking methods used to follow you after you leave their site.

After you’ve changed the permissions, privacy, and security settings to something you're comfortable with, you’ll have a better understanding of what information you're giving away. If you’re not comfortable with companies knowing so much about your personal life, or you find you’re not using the social media all that much, you might be better off removing your account altogether and switching to more secure messaging apps.

Finding a secure messaging app you like should be easy, since many are free and look almost the same as any other chat app you'd use. There are more privacy focused apps appearing everyday, so it's worth regularly looking to see what features new apps offer, how easy they are to use and what they're doing to keep your privacy secure. A nice bonus from switching to secure, privacy focused communications, is that you get to help your friends and family protect their privacy too.

Security tools we like

Using TunnelBear is a great way to start browsing the internet privately, but if you’re looking for more ways to take back your online privacy, there are privacy conscious versions of most of the apps you use every day. There are private messaging apps, encrypted email, browsers that block trackers and obscure your search data, and if you really want to level up your privacy game, there are even operating systems you can run off a USB stick that leave no traces behind. Here’s a short list of some of the tools we like:

2FA

Encrypted chat

Encrypted file storage

Private browsing

Encrypted browsing plugin

Private search

Tracker and javascript blockers

Password manager

Live operating system

VPN

Protect your privacy

Understanding the amount of information you give away daily, and how comfortable you are with that level of intrusion, is important. The good news is, taking steps to secure your online privacy doesn’t mean you have to stop using the internet. Knowing what you’re sharing, and why, helps you balance the pros and cons of what you do online. If you’re not comfortable with a company knowing as much about you as they do, it might be time to try a less invasive service.

Using privacy tools, made by companies that believe privacy is a right worth fighting for, will help keep you safe online. As a bonus, you get to declutter your online life and refocus on things that really matter to you. A perfect way to start being more privacy conscious is to encrypt your browsing, and you can try TunnelBear for free to see how easy privacy can be.

Happy tunneling,
the TunnelBear Team