Ensure your privacy online with these tips
Although popular internet sites like Gmail and Facebook deliver highly personalized experiences, the services they offer are anything but private. Free online services like email and social media survive by collecting and selling your data: your browsing history, your web searches, and even the content you stream. And in 2017, the U.S. Congress voted to allow ISPs to track and sell customer browsing data -- so at this point, it's safe to assume that all of your online activity is tracked and catalogued.
Thankfully, with a few key steps, you can keep your browsing data private and limit what information advertisers can track. Here are the two first steps you can take to maintain your privacy online.
Use a virtual private network (VPN)
Virtual private networks, better known as VPNs, are the most popular method of maintaining online privacy. A VPN is a service you sign up for that installs software on any device; the software encrypts and directs all of your traffic before sending it through the VPN server, so your ISP is unable to see what sites you're visiting.
For example, with a VPN on your smartphone, you could install your provider's VPN app and turn it on, and from that point forward, your ISP would only see traffic between your phone and your VPN provider. Furthermore, every site you visit would see you as an anonymous visitor.
With that in mind, there are three key things to know about VPN services:
Your VPN provider will be able to see all of your internet traffic, so it's important to find a reputable one. As you're comparing VPN services, pay close attention to user reviews, and make sure that the service you sign up with doesn't keep logs of any kind.
Free VPN services are a huge risk. You may see some "free" VPN services as you're comparing your options. Stay away from them. Free VPN service providers, because they're free, generally don't have a lot of accountability to customers, and their business model generally relies on -- you guessed it -- selling your browsing data.
Not all websites are VPN-friendly. Some websites will be able to detect that you're using a VPN, and they may not give you access unless you disconnect from the VPN first. In most cases, this is a good thing: access limitations on accounts like your bank account are usually good for security. But for everyday browsing, it can be a pain. There's generally not a lot you can do about which sites will work with a VPN, but to minimize your risks, make sure you're using a VPN that encrypts and routes your traffic through servers in the states (as traffic that appears foreign is more likely to face problems).
There are hundreds of VPN services available, so do your research before signing up. The most popular VPN services are Private Internet Access, NordVPN, and ExpressVPN. Don't forget to look for coupons ahead of time, as they frequently offer special discounts.
Install a browser extension that disables ad-based tracking
Most websites leave behind files in your web browser called "cookies." Cookies log information about your visits and can be used to track your browsing habits or the other sites you visit. Browser cookies are a bit of a double-edged sword: site personalization and "remember me"-type features rely on cookies, but they also can report browsing data to any site or service that has access, which isn't great for your privacy.
To minimize how much of your online activity is tracked by browser cookies, install a browser extension that blocks websites from leaving any cookies or tracking technologies behind. By disabling ad-based tracking, you greatly limit what information advertisers can see about you, and you're ensuring no more information is collected.
The most common browser extensions for doing this are uBlock Origin, Privacy Badger, and Ghostery. Keep in mind that you only need to install one, and you may run into issues trying to run more than one simultaneously.
Protecting your privacy online isn't just a good idea -- it's a necessity to make sure your private data and online habits don't fall into the wrong hands. But with a VPN and an extension to disable ad tracking, you can enjoy the web without having to worry about who may be following you around.
Jaime Vazqeuz is a writer for BestReviews. BestReviews is a product review company with a singular mission: to help simplify your purchasing decisions and save you time and money. BestReviews never accepts free products from manufacturers and purchases every product it reviews with its own funds.
BestReviews spends thousands of hours researching, analyzing and testing products to recommend the best picks for most consumers. BestReviews and its newspaper partners may earn a commission if you purchase a product through one of our links.
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.