The essentials of online privacy

Sitting around and assuming that huge tech companies have your privacy as a top concern is not the right strategy to take.

The internet has had a huge effect on the way we go about our day-to-day lives. It has never been easier to connect with people on the opposite side of the world or access information about every imaginable topic.

It has also never been easier to track an individual’s daily activities, habits and preferences. Concern among consumers about just how visible their internet activity is has been growing steadily in recent years as the extent of online tracking has become clear.

If you are worried about your online privacy, here are the essential building blocks you need to bring a bit of anonymity back to proceedings.

Your internet browser is your main gateway to the internet, the software that allows you to access your email and favourite websites. Think Google Chrome, Internet Explorer (or Edge for newer machines), Mozilla Firefox, Safari and Opera. Your browser is the programme that translates the code used to build web pages into the images and words or web applications that you interact with every day.

Which browser you use is up to you, and most secure browsing software (including our own) will work across a range of different programmes.

You will probably recognise this term from the messages that often pop on websites, telling you that they use cookies and asking if you are alright with them doing so. Despite this, most people don’t know what cookies are or what they are designed to do.

A cookie is a text file that contains information about your browser, web activity and the device you are using. They don’t do anything aside from sit on your details and store the kind of information that your browser needs such as login information, your site history and web activity.

Cookies are used to make the user experience of navigating the internet as smooth as possible. They are the things that let online stores remember what you’ve placed in your cart, even as you go to different pages on the site, or that mean you don’t have to type in your login details every time you visit Facebook.

Things get problematic because many cookies also track a whole range of other information about you, particularly what you searched for or clicked on while on a particular website. Over time this builds up a pretty comprehensive picture of your interests, preferences, habits and plans. This information is then used to target ads and other kinds of marketing at you.

Cookies are not a uniform kind of file though, and just how much information they can store about your browsing only becomes clear when you consider the different types:

  • Session cookies don’t store user information and are used to temporarily store things like items in your cart. They are deleted once you close your browser.

  • Persistent cookies are often referred to as tracking cookies because they store your browsing habits, which can then be used by advertisers – but they also remember your password, so you don’t have to log in to sites every time you visit them.

  • Third-party cookies are used by advertisers to target ads at you (this is why if you search for garden hoses, you will see nothing but garden hose adverts on every subsequent website you visit).

  • Flash cookies store information such as game progress and user settings, but they can also be used to show which sites you have visited.

  • Supercookies are snippets of code stored on multiple locations on your machine that replicate your web cookies after they’ve been deleted.

You don’t necessarily need to know all the technical details about the different varieties of cookie out there. It is enough to know how they work and what information they are storing about your activities.

If you think about how often you are asked by the websites you visit whether you consent to their use of cookies, you should start to get a sense of the scale of online tracking. Estimates put the amount of popular websites tracking their visitors at around 75%, with each site having its own cookies as well as a range of third party ones constantly recording user information.

This information is used by a huge range of companies, but websites themselves also collect information about the people that use them. The modern internet allows companies and advertisers to see exactly where you came from, what device you were using, how long you were on the site and what you did while you were there.

When added together, all of the information stored by cookies and websites builds an incredibly full and detailed picture of exactly what you do when you are online.

Steps you can take now to protect your privacy
If all this has got you feeling a little helpless, there are some big steps you can take today to limit the amount of personal information that can be tracked.

Delete and disable cookies
Cookies are an essential part of the modern internet experience, and you would definitely notice if they were all gone. You probably don’t need third party ones though, so your best bet is to disable third party tracking and regularly clear your cookies.

You can do this by adjusting the privacy settings of your browser. If you can’t, it is probably worth considering if your current browser is the right one for you.

Use anti-tracking apps
There are a range of anti-tracking apps and plugins available which can block tracking cookies and ads for you. With so many different options available, it is really important that you do your research carefully before you install anything. 

Get a private browser
There are also browsers that are created specifically to protect the privacy of users. The most famous example is Tor, which launched in 2002 and works by connecting to a community of servers all over the world instead of directly to websites. This makes it very difficult for websites to accurately track your location.

While Tor is the most well-known, there are a range of other options open to consumers (Epic and Comodo are two other highly regarded options).

Use a VPN
A VPN encrypts your internet connection and hides you Internet Protocol (IP) address. This means that your internet service provider can’t track your activity. While this won’t stop cookies, it will mean that websites are not able to accurately track where you are visiting the site from. A VPN is an essential tool for the privacy conscious consumer.

Your browser’s private mode isn’t enough
Whether it is called Incognito Mode, Private Browsing or InPrivate, each browser has their own private browsing service. These are, however, not likely to be very effective at enhancing your privacy. Their only function is to hide your activity from anyone else that might use your device.

You should now have a pretty good idea of how online tracking works and how you can work to minimise it. The important point to take away from all of this is that being proactive is important.

Sitting around and assuming that huge tech companies have your privacy as a top concern is not the right strategy to take. Instead, you should be actively ensuring that companies aren’t able to track your online activity.


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