Thanks to the NSA, online privacy is suddenly a major issue, but most of us aren't doing a good job of locking it down. Here are a few of the things we all tend to do that leak private information to friends, strangers, businesses and ad companies — plus how to stop them.
We've talked about why it's worth caring about your privacy, but let's be honest here: most of us don't pay that much attention to it. You don't need a tin foil hat to care, though. The problem is that many of us leak basic private information into the world without even realising it. Let's fix that up.
You Share Your Phone's Location Data with Everyone
Your phone tracks everywhere you go and for the most part, it's a great service that helps make your life better. But on top of basic system-level services like a maps app, we often give out location data to just about any app that asks for it. This means you might leak your location publically without noticing it.
Your location data is the most private thing on your phone. After all, it's the only thing that links your digital self with the physical world. The problem comes when apps that don't need access to your location want it. Sure, handing over your location data to Google Maps makes sense. Giving it to Goodreads does not. So, pay close attention to the apps that ask for your location, and deny the ones that don't need it. It's worth auditing those settings now and again to make sure no apps get access to your location that you don't want. It's easy to do on both Android and iOS.
You might also leak your location through a photo's GPS data. This doesn't sound like a big deal on the surface, but if you post a lot of photos on social networks, your location is in that metadata. That makes it pretty easy for a stranger to track where you are. You can always deny access to your location in your phone's camera app, but then you're missing out on the benefits of tracking your photo locations. Instead, use an app like deGeo on iOS or Pixelgarde on Android to strip away your GPS info before you share those photos.
As we all know, broadcasting your location when you're not at home is problematic. It doesn't take a lot of work to tighten up your privacy here, so keep a careful eye on which apps want access to your location.
You Always Stay Logged In On Social Networks
Sites like Facebook, Google and Twitter track what you're doing on the web to get a better idea of your behaviour and serve up personalised ads. They usually do this through cookies, and we make it even easier for them to track what we're doing by never logging out of these social networks.
The good news here is that a browser extension like Disconnect is all you need to make sure companies aren't snooping on your browsing data without you realising it. It blocks tracking cookies regardless of whether you're logged into a social network or not. Still, it's a good idea to delete your browser's cookies regularly so nothing gets sticks around and spies on you.
Of course, Disconnect won't stop a friend from sitting in front of your computer and gaining access to your social networks. If you have the type of friends who'd prefer to pull a prank than to quietly just log you out, you'll still want to log out of those social networks when you're away.
You Log Into Private Services On Public Computers
Chances are you've needed to use a public computer (or even a friend's computer) at some point to check your email, grab something from Dropbox, or log into Facebook. If you're not careful, you can leave traces of your private info on those computers.
This is the easiest behaviour to fix. If you're on a computer that isn't yours, use the browser's private mode. If you're on a public computer where you're worried about leaving sensitive data behind (like you need to check your bank information when you're in a foreign country), you can use a private operating system like Tails. Something like Tails isn't necessary often, but it comes in handy for those rare instances where you need to make sure you leave nothing on a public computer.
You Share All Kinds Of Data With Retailers
Retail stores are notorious for collecting data about you. Something like Amazon's recommendation system is pretty transparent, but these days, just walking into a retail store with Wi-Fi enabled on your phone is enough for retailers to collect data. Because of that, you're sharing a lot of private information without realising it.
The most obvious case of this is through customer rewards cards at supermarkets. These cards track all sorts of data about your buying habits for use both internally and externally. This data also get sold to sites such as Facebook so they can use it to target ads to you online.
If you really don't want retailers logging every single thing you purchase, just avoid the loyalty cards. As always, remember, when you sign up for a free service offered by a retailer, there's a pretty good chance they're collecting data about you.
You Put Too Much Trust In "Secure" Apps
It seems like every week we see a new app that claims it's a secure alternative to texting or email. But as we've pointed out before, the security and privacy of apps like Snapchat are limited. Worse, in the case of Snapchat, the privacy claims aren't always true.
We don't want to create too much paranoia here, but the fact of the matter is, if something can be seen, it can be copied. No secure messaging app will ever be able to work its way around that entirely. Sure, you can encrypt those conversations to prevent someone from reading messages in transit, but someone can still find them on your computer. It also doesn't mean the person on the receiving end won't take a screenshot or a photo. Likewise, most companies won't defy a court order just to protect your account. If you're concerned about people peeking in on your data, encrypting it at least prevents someone from getting your information easily.
We're not saying you shouldn't use secure messaging apps, or apps like Snapchat that delete messages after they're seen. Just don't assume that using them will keep your data private.
You Hook All Your Online Services Together
One of the best and worst things about the internet is the fact that you can hook one service into another. This might mean linking your favourite apps into Facebook to pull contact information, or giving an app access to your Twitter account so it can grab links. The problem is that we tend to gloss over the permissions we give these apps and then forget about them. This becomes a problem when you link together services with different privacy options. For example, you might have your Foursquare account set to private, but if you link in a public Facebook account anyone can see where you're checking in at.
That's why it's a good idea to regularly go through the permissions you've granted on social networks and make sure you haven't given access to an app you don't want. If you're not sure where to start, MyPermissions gives you a massive list of social networks and direct links to the connected apps pages. This makes it easy to pop in and check your permissions without messing around in confusing menus.
Concerns about privacy grow more and more important every day. While there's not much use in spending your days worrying about the NSA spying on you, that doesn't mean a relaxed stance on privacy is good either. There's a balance here in what makes your life better and the stupid things you do that give away information you don't want out there.