We’ve all been hearing more and more about online privacy is recent months. It seems like
every few days, the internet is in an uproar about some new scandal.
You might wonder if it’s really worth all the fuss. After all, what hacker would care about your
cat videos and joke Twitter accounts?
If you use the internet regularly though, you’re probably leaving much more information behind
than you realize. And more people might have access to that information than you would want.
There are a lot of misconceptions about what internet privacy means, what threats there are to
it and what are the consequences of everyday privacy infringements. In this article, I will try to
clear the air about the most important points of this contentious, fast-evolving and highly
Myth #1: Internet privacy isn’t important for me because I have nothing to hide.
Many people figure that because they’re ordinary, law-abiding citizens they have no reason to
be careful online.
You might not be hiding a secret identity or peddling drugs over the dark web. Still, if you’re not
aware of your digital footprint and the risks to your privacy, you could face serious
The first reason you should care a lot about internet privacy is that privacy and security are two
sides of the same coin.
It’s all about what data you are putting out, what happens to it and who has access to it.
The more invasions of your privacy – the more websites, companies, service providers and third
parties are collecting and sharing your data – the more openings there are for your information
to fall into the wrong hands.
Cybercrime is a growth industry, affecting more people every year. A hacker who gets a hold of
your sensitive data can take control of your accounts, steal your identity, access your bank
account and wreak serious damage to your life – online and off.
Myth #2: If I’m in Incognito mode no-one can see my search history.
What’s all the fuss about being tracked by search engines? I’ll just switch into Incognito mode
and be invisible to everyone… right?
Not so much. Incognito mode means that none of your cookies or search history will be saved on
your computer. However, they’re still stored on your ISP’s server.
It will record what sites you visit at what time, how long you stay there and how much data was
sent over the connection.
Any services you log into, like Facebook, Twitter and Google, will still recognize you and track
everything you do.
Other websites might track you using canvas fingerprinting or other sophisticated techniques.
In short, everyone but you can see your activity.
Browsing in Incognito mode is useful if you want to do some embarrassing searches on a shared
computer, but beyond that it doesn’t actually do anything to protect your privacy.
Myth #3: I just ignore targeted ads so it doesn’t matter who’s collecting data about me.
Data collection shapes your online experience in ways you might not realize.
You may feel immune to those intrusive personalized ads that follow you around the web.
However, since any good advertisement is designed to influence people subconsciously, can you
really say for sure that they don’t have any effect on your buying habits?
In any case, they’re annoying and creepy.
Your search history also shapes the content that you see in more insidious ways.
Did you know that if you search for hotels on Orbitz while using a Mac computer, the results you
get will be more expensive than if you use Windows?
Or if you’re a male job seeker using Google rather than a female, you’re more likely to be shown
ads for high-paying executive jobs?
Finally, data tracking creates a “filter bubble,” or the infamous online news echo chamber. This
means that an algorithm chooses the results you see on a search engine page, or the news items
on your Facebook. You’re shown what it thinks you want to see based on your search history.
This can be convenient sometimes but it means you’re getting a distorted view of reality. If your
main source of news is the internet, as it is for most people these days, this is a serious concern.
Myth #4: Clearing my search history or deleting cookies will give me a blank slate.
This one is along the same lines as thinking that you’re invisible when you’re in Incognito mode.
Many cookies create backups of themselves on another server, which your browser can’t access.
No matter how often you clear your cache, these hidden backups will immediately jump right
What’s more, websites can engage in a background process known as “cookie syncing.” They can
exchange information about a user’s activity and browsing history as linked to some identifier.
This creates a record of your activity that’s invisible to you but maintained somewhere no
matter what you do on your own computer. It can potentially be linked back to your real
Myth #5: VPN’s are the best way to stay safe and private online.
Since Congress struck down that proposed online privacy bill, there’s been a huge spike in
interest in VPN’s (virtual private networks).
These are often touted as a magic bullet of internet security, shielding all of your data and
activity from any eyes.
While a good VPN will keep your information safe on public WiFi networks – and allow you to
watch Netflix in countries where it’s blocked – it’s not an invisibility cloak. Your data is
encrypted and rerouted to the VPN provider’s service, but it’s still out there.
You’re just as vulnerable to phishing scams and viruses as ever. And if the government of the
country where the VPN is based wants your data, the VPN will have to hand it over.
Plus, a “good VPN” is not so easy to find.
These companies are largely unregulated and many operate out of countries with much looser
privacy laws than the US. Many VPN providers are shady at best and downright cybercriminals
You should definitely think twice before entering your banking information over a VPN.
The Hola scandal last year can serve as a warning. The popular Chrome extension was found to
be selling its users’ bandwidth as a massive botnet. Millions of innocent customers’ internet
connections were hijacked for illegal use.
There are some legitimate VPN providers out there, but proceed with caution.
Especially beware of free services. If it seems too good to be true, it probably is.
Myth #6: It’s the government’s job to protect my privacy.
This one really should be true, but given the events of the past few years, we all have to confront
the fact that Big Brother is not too concerned for the online privacy of ordinary citizens.
Here are just a few of the highlights:
In March, Congress voted to repeal a proposed set of regulations on what internet service
providers can do with customers’ records. This essentially gives ISP’s free rein to sell
users’ private information without their knowledge or consent. While maintaining the
legal status quo, the vote shows clearly the US government is looking out more for the
profits of big corporations than the privacy and security of citizens.
A change to Rule 41 went into effect on December 1 st 2016. It allows judges to issue
search and seizure warrants for computers outside their jurisdiction. The FBI can now
legally hack a computer anywhere, with very few limitations. Many civil rights groups are
warning that it’s a huge extension of government surveillance powers.
The PRISM program. In 2013, Edward Snowden leaked top-secret documents revealing
that the NSA has direct access to Google, Facebook, Apple and others. It’s been using it to
collect search histories, emails, messages and other highly personal content. Even more
disturbing is that these companies were named as willing participants – and they all
denied knowledge of the program.
The Investigatory Powers Act or Snooper’s Charter, passed in the UK last November,
requires ISP’s and phone companies to store all search histories for 12 months. It gives
police and security agencies unprecedented access to this data, as well as greater
freedom to hack into computers and phones.
Wherever you look, governments are intruding more and more into citizens’ private internet
use. So don’t count on the law to protect your privacy and security! (more info can be found here)
I may have painted a pretty bleak picture here, but I think it’s important that we all know the
facts and the dangers of being online in 2017.
The good news is, there are ways for you to keep your privacy and stay safe.
Using a private search engine like MyPrivateSearch or DuckDuckGo is an essential move. These
search engines don’t collect any personal information.
Get off Google, Bing, Yahoo and other mainstream services as much as you can. There are plenty
of alternative email and other service providers that respect your privacy and protect your
In general, keep up with privacy policies. Read the fine print. Just being aware of your digital
footprint is the best place to start.