How to shield your online privacy from cybercriminals and spies
Worried about your online privacy or that of your visitors? Then you're likely already familiar with options like SSL certificates, domain privacy, and DNSSEC-validating DNS services. Necessary options for sure but none offer comprehensive defence against cybercriminals and spies. So what other precautions should you take?
Cybercriminals and spies have their eyes on you
Have you ever had the feeling of being watched while using your phone? Perhaps you should listen to your gut because odds are you're right.
You may not be aware, but, there are a lot of people who spend time and money just so they can spy on you. These people employ strategy coupled with the latest technology just so they can “know you better” without you actually knowing.
Some of these people may already be spying on you right now while you’re reading this sentence.
“But why would they be so interested in me,” you ask?
One word: Information.
These people want (and even need) your information. That’s why they’ll do everything they can to get it. From ordinary people to the CEOs of big corporations, no one’s information is too mundane for it to lack value.
Starting to get a little worried about your privacy? That’s good because it means you’re actually concerned about it. Most people just nonchalantly carry on without realising the deeper implication this has towards their online privacy -- and even safety.
So, without further ado...
Here's who might be spying on you and how to stop them
Of course, the most well-known culprits for spying are cybercriminals. These hackers have spied on other people ever since the Internet was made.
The term “hacker” often conjures images of people wearing hoodies stooped over their computer in a dark room surrounded by huge, hi-tech-looking gadgets and gizmos with bright, “The Matrix”-style text descending from the dark screen.
But that’s not actually what they look like (although I wouldn’t deny the possibility that some of them actually do). The truth is they look like ordinary people and that’s what makes them more dangerous.
The thing is:
You never know if that person in the next table at Starbucks is just there to enjoy their coffee or is actually looking to make a MitM attack. The guy doing his research at the school library may actually be looking to infiltrate the school’s records. That random social media friend request claiming to be your classmate from the 3rd grade may actually be someone looking to access your private information.
How to stop them:
- Never download apps from unknown sources: You never know who put them there and what comes with them.
- Use OpenDNS: This software prevents you from entering known malware and phishing sites.
- Beware who’s friend request you accept on social media: You never know if these people are who they say they are and if they’re up to no good. Check their profile, photos, and amount of friends -- these will give you an indication if they’re the real deal.
- Be careful with the information you share on social media: You never know who’s watching and recording your information.
- Install an antivirus: This software will find and terminate malware, including spyware, already on your device. It also prevents more from entering your device in the future.
- Avoid public wifi if possible: These networks are often unencrypted and are a hotspot for hackers. If you have to use your phone to go online, make sure you have an android VPN active at all times.
- Protect your passwords: Use a mixture of upper and lower case letters, numbers, and symbols to make your passwords. You can also use a password manager app to generate and keep your passwords for you.
Did you know that it’s easy for your Internet Service Provider to monitor and record your online activity? It all has to do with the way an internet search works.
Let me explain:
When you want to search for something on the Web, you type in a search word(s) into your browser. These search words form a query which your browser sends to the right DNS server.
But before this query gets to the right DNS server, it first has to go through your ISP.
Since your query’s data packets consist of plain text, your ISP (and anyone else who infiltrates your connection) can, therefore, read and record your searches easily. And, to add insult to injury, they’re actually legally allowed to do so.
This becomes even more problematic if you’re in a place where net neutrality laws are dead. The reason? It’s easy for your ISP to throttle your bandwidth towards certain sites if they know what sites you search for and visit.
How to stop them:
- Use a VPN: This software encrypts your online traffic which, therefore, prevents your ISP from tracking what you search for and what websites you visit. VPNs also mask your true IP address which means not even the sites you visit can trace the activity back to you.
- Use a Proxy: You can also use a proxy instead of a VPN. Proxies work by simply replacing your IP address with another one. Do note, however, that proxies aren’t as secure as VPNs. So, take that fact into account when deciding between them.
- Use TOR: The Onion Router protects your privacy by encasing your online data in 3 layers of encryption. This data is then “bounced” three times before it travels through an exit node. This process makes it so that your data can’t be traced back to you. The beauty of TOR is it can also be used with a VPN to form an impenetrable armour of privacy for your online data.
I’m sure you’re aware, for example, that the CIA spies on its citizens. They do so by monitoring consumer electronics like computers, phones, wifi routers, and even smart TVs.
It can be argued that they’re only doing this for the common good. After all, they do this for reasons that involve public safety and national security.
However, I won’t blame you if you feel that your privacy is being violated legally - especially when you’ve got nothing to hide in the first place.
How to stop them:
- Encrypt your data: Only use messenger apps that come with built-in encryption technology. Even the FBI couldn’t de-encrypt conversations made through Facebook messenger’s secret conversation feature. You can also encrypt the data you store on your devices by using an encryption app and I’ve already discussed encrypting your online data with a VPN.
- Cover your webcams: Even Edward Snowden admitted that he covers his webcam with tape to prevent the CIA from using it to watch him. It may look silly but if it works, then it’s the right kind of silly.
- Update everything: Keeping your software, hardware, and firmware updated prevents spies from exploiting security vulnerabilities. Never ignore updates when they become available. You can also simply turn auto-updates on.
- Think twice about buying smart home assistants: These devices can be used to eavesdrop on your private conversations and record all your private information.
Have you ever been haunted by a product or service search that you made in the past? Do you wonder how sites seem to show you ads for products and services near you?
That’s the work of adtech. These are technologies used by advertising companies that allow them to track your online habits (just like your ISP). These technologies include Web cookies, beacons, and pixels.
They then use the information they get to form a profile which aids them in making business decisions like what products to develop and which ones to improve.
To some people, this seems harmless and even convenient. After all, personalised ads do save you from the hassle of prolonged online searches. Also, the information these companies obtain is being used to improve and develop better products and services.
On the other hand, there are others that feel that these companies are violating their privacy. After all, these companies are doing it secretly or by using complicated legal jargon to hide exactly what they’re doing.
How to stop them:
- Clear cookies: Websites insert web cookies into your browser to do certain functions like keeping track of your online preferences and auto-filling online forms. But these cookies can also be used to track and store your online activity even after you’ve navigated away from the site.
- Use a browser plug-in: These browser plug-ins, like Facebook container offered by Mozilla, limit how much data a social media company can access. This prevents the company from using your data to send you targeted ads.
- Use ad-blockers: This software simply blocks ads from popping up on your screen.
- Go Incognito: Going Incognito prevents your browser from saving your browsing history, Cookies and site data, and Information entered in forms.
- Use privacy-oriented search engines: Most search engines track your online activity across the Internet. This is how these companies make money. You can replace these search engines with a privacy-oriented search engine like DuckDuckGo. These private search engines don’t track your Web activity and they also block ads.
Defend your online privacy from cybercriminals and prying eyes
We should all take our online privacy seriously. There are a lot of people looking to get your private information. Root out the hackers and spies on your devices by following these steps provided here.
-John Mason is a cybersecurity enthusiast. He's working as the head researcher at TheBestVPN.