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How to remain (mostly) invisible online

Bob Violino | Jan. 21, 2015
With such a heavy reliance on the Internet for all sorts of interactions and transactions and the many ways people are connected via their mobile or desktop devices, is it possible to remain invisible online?

The problem with privacy tools is users do not know if the tools offered will actually work to protect their privacy, Ahearn says. "I tell all of my clients that if they cannot prove the tool, it does not work and a different strategy must considered," he says. "I believe Snapchat guaranteed photos would immediately disappear. But they lied and look what happened."

Still, vendors are offering a number of products designed to help users maintain their privacy online, and these provide a variety of features designed to help keep information private.

In addition to these products, for those users who want to get online and not employ deception tactics, there are a number of options to enhance privacy.

One is to use a virtual private network (VPN) when online. "This way your data traffic is encrypted, and thus difficult to detect by spies or any hackers — whether you use a phone, computer or tablet," says Robert Siciliano, an identity theft expert. "Data transmission may still occur due to ads, but the VPN will put a stifling effect on it."

"There are inexpensive anonymizing VPN services that are easy to use," says Randy Abrams, research director at NSS Labs, an information security research and advisory company. "These services hide your IP address, which does significantly increase privacy, even when using public Internet services."

Another tactic is to install Hypertext Transfer Protocol Secure (HTTPS), a communications protocol for secure communication over a network. Privacy seekers should install HTTPS browser plugins wherever they can, Siciliano says. "It's free, though currently not available for smartphones," he says. "HTTPS means security on the visited Web site."

Users can also be less visible by limiting the information they share online.

"Follow the minimum necessary rule; only fill in the fields that are mandatory when filling out online forms," says Vinny Sakore, cloud security program manager at ICSA Labs, a vendor-neutral firm that tests and certifies security products. "When prompted, do not 'opt in' unless you absolutely need to. Stay away from contests and 'free giveaways' where your personal information is requested."

Users can also quit or limit their activity on social networks. "One of the most common and effective steps to reduce one's footprint is to give up all social networks," Abrams says. "Giving up social networks can reduce both targeted advertising and stalking."

For those users who like their privacy but also enjoy using social media, it's a good idea to post only when you're connected via your password-protected, secure workplace or home Wi-Fi, Siciliano says. "And in some cases you may need to post via computer, not your smartphone," he says.

On sites such as Instagram, Facebook and Google+, set the privacy settings to not allow anyone outside your approved list to view your information," Sakore says. "Also, be careful about approving posts and images where you are 'tagged,'" he says.


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