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Have you ever been on Facebook or Instagram and seen an ad that is eerily relevant to you? If so, you may be concerned about your digital footprint: What information are you giving away? Who watches it? What do apps, organizations and even governments know about you? If you are an avid social media user and/or are dealing with sensitive issues in your personal life, you may be concerned about how you could be tracked online and how your activity could be used against you. In this article I’ll list a few ways you can avoid leaving a digital trail, but first it’s important to understand how a digital trail is created in the first place. Here’s how it happens:
Internet monitoring: Everything you do on the internet is tracked. Your search history, your location, the apps you install, the content you interact with — everything serves as a data point in services like recommendation systems and fraud detection. If you are a person with mental health issues, you may seek therapy, psychiatric medication, or possible complications. You can also google for symptoms that indicate depression or anxiety. You may (unintentionally) share information about your issues on social media or via messaging apps. All this forms a digital track; a company or app tracking you can use and sell this information.
Smart monitoring and user profiling: Recent trends in machine learning have made user profiling extremely powerful. Models can now control who likes which products and in which colors and sizes. There are algorithms that systematically calculate the probability that a user will fall prey to certain marketing tactics or be prone to certain problems. A company that has access to enough information about you may be able to “predict” when you’ll be pregnant, what tendencies you have, or even your sexual orientation. This can be used to tailor ads you receive or even place you on certain watchlists.
So, how do you avoid leaving a digital trail? Follow these valuable tips below:
Be mindful of the things you post on your Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. If you’re asking about health issues, be careful who sees your posts. Check your friends and followers regularly and keep your privacy settings as high as possible. As a general rule, don’t post about sensitive issues or information you don’t want to share with just anyone. Even if you put it in a private group and have the most restrictive privacy settings, your friends and followers might not – they could share it with their network or their accounts could be hacked.
Related: Protecting Digital Identities: Why Data Privacy Should Be Important To You (and Your Business)
Turn off location tracking
Many apps use your location for better recommendations and detecting fraud (for example, an unusual transaction on a credit card). Google Maps often saves the places you’ve visited. Other applications (such as Snapchat and Instagram) can also passively use your location in the background. Make sure to check the location permissions in your phone settings and disable them periodically for all applications.
Search in anonymous mode
When browsing the web, I recommend that you always browse anonymously or incognito. This ensures that your searches are not recorded in the browser history. Friends, family, or even law enforcement who have access to your phone won’t be able to check what search terms you’ve entered or what pages you’ve visited. No cookies (tracking elements placed on your computer or phone by websites) are stored, so those websites cannot track you. This prevents a website from profiling you and tracking your activities across different websites. An important thing to remember is that although your activity is not visible to other users of the computer, your internet service provider (ISP) can still see and record what you are doing.
Using VPN services
A VPN service like NordVPN or ExpressVPN keeps your activity private and allows you to hide your IP address while using the internet. Your ISP or the websites you visit will no longer be able to track you based on your IP (they may still register the IP, but it won’t actually be yours!). You can change your IP address as often as you want. Since the location is determined by a reverse lookup of the IP address, this also effectively hides your location. It also gives you access to geo-restricted content – if your state or country decides to block information on certain topics, you can choose an IP address from another state and then access that content.
Related: You’re probably being tracked online right now. Here’s how to protect yourself
Use encrypted messages
If you share sensitive information with your friends, make sure to share it through a secure messaging app. Applications like WhatsApp are end-to-end encrypted – which means that these messages cannot be intercepted and decrypted, even by governments. Even better, use an app like Signal, which allows messages to “disappear” after a certain amount of time. Both Signal and WhatsApp are free to download and use.
Many times you may want to share documents or medical reports with someone, and once you send it as part of an email or chat, it could potentially be used against you. If you want to send someone a document, first upload it to a secure cloud service such as Google Drive, OneDrive or Dropbox. These services allow you to generate secure links to share with specific people. Once the other person has viewed the file, you can disable the link. Once disabled, clicking the link leads nowhere. If you want to take it one step further, use a URL shortener like BitLy or TinyURL to generate a short, unobtrusive link, which even hides the actual website you’re linking to.
Use disposable email addresses
Many websites require you to sign up with an email address to access content. If you’re on such a website, don’t use your real email address for verification – use a disposable email address. Websites like TempMail allow you to generate email addresses and receive emails on them for a short period of time. You can make as many as you want and use a different one each time. This way you avoid sharing your real email – if the website is ever breached, your identity will not be revealed.
Related: How To Be Invisible Online — Without Going Off The Net (Infographic)
While it is nearly impossible to guarantee complete anonymity on the Internet, these techniques should provide a good starting point. Be sure to follow other digital hygiene best practices as well: choose long, random passwords, don’t share or reuse passwords, and don’t click on suspicious or unfamiliar links.