Stay safe online: 5 ways to protect your privacy

Think about the multitude of information you store on, or enter into, your devices. Photos, videos, emails, social media passwords, online banking details - there’s probably a lot. And then think how it would feel if this information got into the wrong hands. Not good.

As the world's data is growing exponentially, cybercriminals have thought up increasingly complex ways to get hold of your information, from simple password hacks and phishing scams to malware attacks. Sometimes, simply oversharing can cause your personal information to be used illegitimately. If you want to keep your private information private, there are now a lot of things you need to consider. Here are five places to start:

1. Review your social privacy and security settings

It’s no secret that companies like Facebook use data to deliver relevant advertising but recent accusations that specific users were delivered misinformation in an attempt to sway their political views seems to have (understandably) damaged public trust in social media.

When any of us join Facebook, Instagram or any other social platform, we agree to terms and conditions which seems fair (despite them being so long that very few people have the time to read them). However, Facebook updates can still modify which information is made public. For this reason, it is worth checking your privacy settings - on Facebook and all other social platforms - once a month or so. If you’ve been an avid user since social began, chances are there are some posts you’d rather keep hidden!

Remember that publicly sharing your name, address, date of birth and other personally identifiable makes it easier for criminals to hack into your online accounts and even apply for credit cards and loans in your name. Think before you post. If your address is publicly available on your profile do you really want to post about your upcoming two-week holiday, when your home is likely to be empty? It’s probably best that you just make sure all your personal information is only shared with friends and connections.

2. Clean your browsing data

By ‘data’, we mean your browsing history (the record of the pages you have visited) and cookies (which are small files of website data).

It’s pretty obvious that sometimes you might want to clear your browsing history but not so with cookies, unless you know what they do. Cookies data can be both good and bad. They were designed so that when you go to a site you’ve previously visited, your computer doesn’t have to re-download the site’s data, which is useful. However, cookies are also used by ad networks. If you’ve noticed the same ads following you around the internet, cookies are to blame. Deleting your cookies will stop this.

Cookies are also used to store your passwords. If you share a computer we recommend that once you’ve finished browsing, cookies are deleted to prevent the next user from potentially being able to log into your online accounts.

A default clean using CCleaner will delete browsing history and cookies for you - and this doesn’t mean that passwords have to be deleted. All cleans are customizable so if your machine is your own, your passwords can stay intact. CCleaner also deletes unnecessary files which has the added benefit of speeding up your computer and freeing up space which was previously occupied by junk. And as it won't delete anything that needs to be retained for normal operation, it’s safe to use on all your devices.

CCleaner is free to download and clean ad hoc, or users can upgrade to CCleaner Professional to gain additional features, such as automatic cleaning. It’s available for PC, Mac and Android.

3. Know what a VPN is – and use it

Screenshot of HMA! VPN app CCleaner clears browsing data to improve privacy, but online security shouldn’t stop there. You need to stay safe both in and out of your home or workplace.

Let’s pretend you’re sat in a coffee shop and you connect to the wifi. Have you ever thought about who might be watching the traffic on that network? Or who the network is operated by? Network operators can see a user’s online activity and IP address, and can potentially decode these data packages to extract sensitive information. What if the network you’re on is operated by a thief that’s after your personal data? This is where a VPN (or ‘Virtual Private Network’), saves the day. VPNs like Hide My Ass! essentially create a safe, anonymous tunnel for you to use the internet. We recommend that you use it anytime you’re on network that isn’t your own.

Using a VPN has other benefits too. Since April 2017 in the US, ISPs can legally share specific customer data without consent. A VPN encrypts and anonymizes all this data to keep the online activity truly private. Plus, if you travel regularly or live in an internet-censored country, a VPN can also be used to bypass regional restrictions to online content.

4. Make sure an antivirus always has your back

Antivirus software protects your PC against a multitude of sins including spyware, which is a type of malware that collects information about your browsing habits, history and other personal information (such as your credit card numbers), and can to pass this information along to third parties without your knowledge. This can come in the form of keyloggers, which is a type of spyware that records what is entered into your keyboard.

Most Windows machines will have Defender pre-installed which will offer basic protection, but independent tests show that dedicated antivirus products usually perform better and will protect your computer against more threats. The good news is that most of the best-in-class antiviruses are free and easy to install. Here’s a round-up of the best antiviruses available.

5. Create complex passwords and keep them to yourself

It might be tempting to chose your name followed by 12345, but that’s not going to outwit anyone.
A strong password shouldn’t include words or numbers that are obviously relevant to you. It should contain lots of characters, be made up of a mixture of uppercase and lowercase characters, and include symbols (substitutions such as $ for S can make them easier to remember).

Keep passwords unique to each site as using the same password to access multiple accounts means hackers could access all your accounts at once. And lastly, don’t share your passwords or write them down!

If remembering all your passwords sounds tricky, consider using a password manager such as LastPass. Make your master password super strong and you’ll stay secure without having to worry.

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