Online, there’s never a magic bullet for privacy. There are, however, some tried and tested methods for covering your footsteps.
These range from the simple and practical, such as ensuring you don’t ‘overshare’ on Facebook, up to web browsers built to keep you safe from all but the most sophisticated electronic snoopers.
Below are our tips on how to stay private, whatever you want to do online.
When you want to browse in private
If you want to browse privately on your own, or a family PC, ignore your browser’s “Do Not Track” option. It’s pretty meaningless as sites often ignore it and will then serve adverts based on where you visited.
Private, or Incognito mode is your simplest option.
If you want to cover your footsteps, you are best off browsing from a PC or Mac, rather than a smartphone. On a smartphone, as soon as you perform an action that requires another app (such as viewing a map, or playing a video), you will cease being anonymous.
On a PC, you have more control. Don’t bookmark sites. Even in Incognito mode, this will still remain in your browser. Likewise, downloaded files will still be visible elsewhere in your PC or Mac, even if they aren’t in your browser’s “Download” panel.
For an even more thorough clean-up, you can also use add-ons such as ‘Click&Clean’ for browsers such as Firefox and Chrome, which offer simple menus to ensure every trace, from cookies to cache memory to web history, are erased.
The add-on will also ensure you are signed out of services such as your Google Account as you browse: useful protection as services such as Google can store their own versions of your website history.
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When you want to escape from an ex
A shockingly large amount of ‘domestic spyware’, snooping software for suspicious husbands, wives and partners is available online.
If you’re worried, check through your PC and phone for applications you don’t recognise or install security software to check for spyware. Most security packages will offer warnings about such spyware as being malicious or ‘potentially unwanted’.
Another key step is to ensure your partner cannot log in to any of your accounts.
Change the passwords: if he/she has been using spyware, or just peering over your shoulder, it’s possible he/she knows them.
When choosing a new password, ensure it’s not linked to anything they might possibly know about you (i.e. a pet’s name).
When you want to hold a private business conversation
Virtual Private Networks are often what you ‘log in’ to when you work from home. They extend the privacy you enjoy on a private work network across the internet, and offer secure point-to-point connections which are far more difficult to ‘listen in’ to than any conversation conducted over the internet itself.
Also known as VPNs, these networks are difficult to access without the proper credentials and/or software, and make eavesdropping hard.
Virtual Private Networks are not just available to businesses, though. If you’re a freelancer, small business, or just two individuals who want to hold a conversation without being listened to, try out services such as ‘LogMeIn Hamachi’, ‘Banana VPN’, or ‘StrongVPN’.
Some functions may be available free, but you will usually have to pay a small monthly subscription fee to use all the functions of good VPN software fully.
When you want your children to stay private online
Internet predators will often befriend children in an innocent-seeming way online. There are several steps a parent can take to ensure a child is not giving away their identity online.
Firstly, talk to the child about the difficulties of anonymity online, and explain how as soon as you switch on a computer, you are not alone. Explain that, just as in the real world, you should only talk to people you already know.
With very young children, it’s key to help them choose games which don’t include options for voice or text chat with other gamers. The best way to test this is to play them yourself first.
With older children, explain that it’s important to choose a username for gaming services which includes no identifying information (such as a real name, or age), information which might help a predator identify a young victim.
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When you want to ensure no one can snoop in your documents
Encryption software sounds like something Q Division might explain to James Bond, but it’s actually a surprisingly easy way to password-protect private documents, and, if used correctly, is very secure.
Files will be encoded so they cannot be read without a password, even if the device is lost. The one caveat is that you do have to remember the password. If you forget it, you may be locked out forever.
Don’t be put off if you’ve tried encryption before and found it difficult. Basic file-encryption systems are now offered by both Mac and Windows (‘FileVault 2’ in new versions of Mac OS X, and ‘BitLocker’ in the Pro and Enterprise versions of Windows 8) and are far easier to use than they used to be. Visit the Microsoft or Apple websites for more information. If you’re using a cheaper version of Windows 8, free software such as ‘DiskCryptor’ can help.
If you tend to carry sensitive files on your phone (not a good idea, generally speaking), firstly put a password lock (more secure than a PIN), then encrypt the device. You can do this in both Android and iOS. On phones, encrypting your files does tend to slow things down a little, but it means that if someone steals your phone, they have no way of accessing your private files without your password.
When you absolutely HAVE to ensure privacy
If you really need to be private, services such as Tor (The Onion Router) can help conceal your identity from most snoopers. Don’t expect miracles, as computers are always vulnerable to some forms of snooping, such as malicious software installed on the PC to log keystrokes.
Available as a free download online, Tor allows access to ‘hidden services’, including some pretty unpleasant sites where drugs and pornography are sold: but you can also use it to browse and post anonymously, via a customised version of Firefox.
Data bounces around thousands of ‘relay’ computers on its way to and from your computer while using Tor, so your internet address is concealed. This is not for beginner PC users, though, and it’s easy to make mistakes which reveal your identity if you’re less experienced. You can find out more at torproject.org.