Protecting your online identity

Protecting your online identity: How you are being tracked without even knowing it

Posted on Posted in Business, Cybersecurity

Let’s start with online security.

The first step is to use common sense and switch on your cynical mode.  If it looks too good to be true, it probably is.   If in doubt don’t go there. Check all internet links in email.  Hover your cursor over the link and it will show you where the link will take you.   If isn’t what you expect, don’t click on it. For example, if the email is from your bank, and the link doesn’t take you to the bank website, don’t go there.   Remember when sending email that email is a postcard, not a letter.   Anyone can read it.

Protecting your online identity - Password

Passwords are a common security hole. Use different passwords on different sites.   Make them complex.  Use a mixture of upper and lower case letters, numbers and special characters. Make them at least eight or ten characters long.  Don’t use easily guessed passwords like birthdays, maiden or pet’s names and car index numbers.  There are software apps that generate random passwords, and act as software vaults so you don’t need to remember them. Finally, change them regularly.

Many websites ask for the answer to a security question, for example your mother’s maiden name.  Be careful of disclosing such information on websites like Facebook. There have been recent reports that scammers are using conversations on social media to find out the answers to these questions. 

A broader definition of attempts to find out personal information is phishing.   Often phishing starts with a seemingly innocent email, apparently from a reputable source.  In the email you are invited to either open an attachment or visit a website.  The attachment will contain malicious software that will record your logon ids and passwords and send them to the scammer.  Website links will take you to a site that isn’t the one you expect, and again install malicious software on your PC.

Protecting online identity - Anti-Virus

Install anti-virus and anti-spyware software on your PC and update it regularly.  If your browser supports blacklisting of sites and a private browsing mode, use both.  Make sure that your browser security settings are set quite high.  If the website offers two-step authentication, use it.

Finally, it is quite common to store information on cloud-based services like OneDrive and Dropbox.  Be careful, because these services have been hacked in the past and government agencies often have unrestricted access to the data.   If you are storing personal or sensitive information, use a software app to encrypt the information before you upload it.  

You will be surprised at the tracks you leave behind as you move around the Internet.  A useful trick is to Google yourself.  You will be amazed at the information that turns up.

Why is your Internet usage tracked? 

Tracked Internet Usage

One of the current issues is that of tracking your use of the Net so that you can be more accurately fed advertisements appropriate to your interests.  However, it appears from media leaks and current cases against major internet players that much more data is retained than is strictly necessary to do that.  Online privacy is a major talking point in government and the chattering classes.

A second reason is national security. Intelligence services are keenly interested in seeing who is going to websites that they consider a threat, and who is corresponding with whom.   That alone indicates that comprehensive tracking of individual use of the Internet will not go away anytime soon.

In summary, despite the measures you may take to mitigate your tracks on the web, you will still be tracked.  At best you will restrict the people who can see your tracking data.

Tracking is enabled through the use of cookies, small snippets of information held on your computer giving details of your settings and preferences.  One particular type is called a third party cookie.  These are the cookies that record the sites you visit and track your usage.

To minimise tracking you need to do two things, first delete the existing cookies, and then adjust your browser settings to stop them coming back.  This is easy to do in IE, Firefox and Chrome. Safari switches them off by default.  Note though that any retained information, such as setting and log-on details will be lost and will need to be re-entered.

To summarise, be vigilant with security, both anti-malware and management of your personal details like passwords, and don’t worry too much about tracking.  You won’t be able to stop it entirely, but you can restrict who sees your tracking data by disabling third party cookies.

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