Take back your privacy online. Several practical suggestions

Costica Dumbrava | A citizen with a view | August 2019 

We often hear that we are our data meaning that our digital information and interactions are increasingly replacing our bodily presence. But as we are becoming our data this data is becoming less ours. We can blame it on the Internet, the big tech giants and/or on our giving away our valuable information in exchange for email services and funny cat videos. The truth is that our data is incessantly collected, combined, analysed, sold, stolen, etc., and, despite everyday headlines about more or less creative uses and abuses of our data, we remain only vaguely and abstractly aware about when and how it happens. Well, it happens now and here while you read this post in your cookie-stuffed browser while logged into your several social media accounts and plugged into a multitude of unassuming but data-vorous mobile apps. It is said that privacy is dead in the digital age. I do not believe it. Even if it were so, I do not think it should be this way. So what can one do to safeguard some of their privacy online? Here are few practical suggestions based on common sense and  a couple of hours of online research.

1. Change your passwords

If you still use the same password for all your online accounts, which you have not changed for ages (or you have but then you forgot the new one and reverted to the good old one to avoid further embarreasment), change it immediately. Use complex and different passwords for each account. It is likely that your account(s) have been compromised at least once in the past. You can check this here.

2. Change your browser and search engine

Your browser (Internet, basicaly) is the place where your data is most readily up for grab. Your interests, needs, cravings, curiosity and idleness are the primary raw materials of the new digital economy and this personal data is usually taken or extracted  from you without your permission or awareness. Your browser snips it from you. Some browsers are better than others at protecting your privacy. Digitaltrends recommends a number of privacy-friendly browsers such as Brave, Firefox, Tor and Safari. If you (understandably) grew wary about asking Google about your skin rash or hangover remedies, you should consider switching to a more private search engine. There are several recommended options, such as SearchEncrypt, DuckDuckGo, WolframAlpha, Startpage and Gibiru. DuckDuckGo, for example, can be set as the default search engine in Safari. If you want to stick to Google, you should seriously consider checking and adjusting the (many) privacy settings of the (many) Google services.

3. Switch to a private email

For many (and myself) saying that you are your data is equal to saying  that you are your Gmail account. The offer of nearly limitless, free and ‘personal’ email was simply too sweet to be true. Google has admitted to scanning your emails  for advertising purpose and to allowing third-party apps to access and share data from Gmail accounts. So you may wish to limit the use of Gmail (or Yahoo or other free mainstream email service) and to look for a more private email solution. Lifewire lists several best options, including Protonmail, CounterMail, Hushmail, Mailfence and Tutanota. The downside is that private email services cost money. But you can experiment with light versions or free trial periods. Protonmail, for example, offers an  email account with 500M free space. This is not much but it might be just enough for keeping a curated inbox. A free private account with a limited space might incentivise you to keep a clean email account by forcing you to actually read your emails and sort/delete all unessential emails as they come. You probably no longer (if ever) read/ need that organic coffee shop’s or Swiss railway company’s newsletters. So unsubscribe and delete. If you are woried about keeping your lifeworth of data in Google’s basement(s), you could download all your emails by using Google takeout service. This will allow you to download  archives of all your emails (and other Google data). Once your old emails are saved, you could go ahead and delete them from Google (and, if you dare, close your Gmail account).

4. Clean up your Facebook

If you (still) have a Facebook account and feel uneasy about deleting it (and thus sending your 500ish friends and self-congratulatory posts  to irreversible digital oblivion), Facebook now lets you limit the visibility of your old posts (see how to here). However, your data will still remain with Facebook. You can also delete the photos you posted on Facebook; you can delete whole albums apart from Profile pictures and Mobile uploads albums. If you feel brave, you can try to delete all your previous posts (photos, likes, comments, check-ins, etc). But you may want to save these first. Luckily, Facebook allows you to save all your data (go to Settings/ Your Facebook information/ Download your information). You can select what data, format (e.g. html files can be read in your browser), and media quality you wish to have. Once the file is safely downloaded, you can access your Facebook data offline (e.g. view your timeline in your browser). Unfortunately, though not unsurprisingly, Facebook does not give you the option to delete all your posts and activities at once. But there is an workaround  for this. You need to log  into your Facebook account from the Google Chrome browser and use the Chrome extension called Social Book Post Manager. This will delete all your Facebook posts and activities – or selectively, by type, year, etc. (see instructions here).

5. Tend to your mobile apps

Tell me in all honesty when did you last used that fancy (free) 3D ruler app that you keep on the fifth screen of your smartphone/ tablet? If the answer is more than 3 months ago, delete the app. And while you are at it, delete also the other 20 – 50 unused and unessential apps that keep it company. They are using memory space, drag your device battery and they are probably stealing your data and spying on you. As for the lucky apps that survive the purge, you should take your time to review the privacy settings of your device and apps to ensure that your privacy is respected, as in the appropriate use of location tracking, camera, microphone, etc.  A useful guide for iphone users can be found here. There are a number of techy solutions out there that can help you navigate the kafkaesque jungle of ‘privacy’ settings. Jumbo app (iPhone), for example, allows you to quickly audit and fix the privacy settings of a number of online accounts, such as Google, Gmail, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and Alexa (e.g. it can delete your old tweets for you).

Other useful tips

Reported privacy issues

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