How to protect your data and privacy online

There are many ways to lose control of your data online, but only a few to keep control.

If you haven't seen The Great Hack, the Netflix documentary on the Cambridge Analytica scandal, we recommend you do so. It shows just how deep the rabbit hole goes and how people have been turned into a product to be used at the behest of corporations and political parties.

In this day and age, protecting your data is important, but not many people realise how easy it is to give away sensitive data without ever knowing it happened. It is not possible to completely isolate yourself from data theft without going off the grid, but it is possible to minimise the impact on your life. Here's how you can protect your data:

1. Never use the same email or password on multiple apps or sites:

This is by far the simplest oversight by people. Using the same email allows data-harvesting companies to easily link your profile together using your activity online, and using the same password is equivalent to you handing a master key to your home because if one of the apps or sites is hacked, everything you have will be compromised.

The easiest solution is to always keep an email or two in handy for websites or apps, that have no connection to your primary email address; and as for passwords, it pays to be creative. There are many programs and services that provide a virtual 'safe' to store your passwords as well.

2. Use a VPN

Whether you know it or not, your ISP, every website you visit and every app you use keeps track of your location and other parameters. This could be simply to provide tailor-made ads or to keep tabs on you. A VPN (Virtual Private Network) allows you to bypass location tracking by adding a layer of obfuscation to your traffic, and in some cases, it may even help speed up your internet experience.

Do note that some apps could ban you from using their services if you use a VPN, so be judicious in what you're using it for.

3. Read the terms and conditions

Not reading the terms and conditions to using websites or apps is something most, if not all people, are guilty of. It's not entirely their fault, either, because many of those are filled with big words and are often too long for people to bother with.

But not reading through it is a mistake, because knowing what the company that offers you the app or website wants from you in exchange is critical to protecting your privacy. You may have heard of the phrase "if it's free, you're the product", or some variation of it. Companies, especially those offering "free" products and services, are never really doing anything for free - they need something from you in exchange; to be specific - your data.

If you feel a certain app or website is not forthcoming enough with its terms, walk away from it. A lack of transparency when it comes to handling user data is never a good sign, especially if you live in a country with poor data protection laws.

4. Use Adblockers when possible

Many websites use ads are to earn revenue. Some among those use tracking cookies to see your search and browsing history to tailor ads that are relevant to that data. Using adblockers can help you avoid that targeted advertisement. Some websites may ask you to whitelist them or pay them to give you an ad-free experience, so use that option that makes sense to you.

5. Antivirus is your friend

Viruses, trojans and ransomware are some of the most widely-present threats to computer and data security in the world. Of them, the worst is the ransomware, which is any program that locks away your data for a price. By itself, the ransomware industry is worth billions of dollars a year in revenue.

Some viruses and trojans are designed to take over your device and infect others through it, while others are used to track your data such as passwords or banking information, which is then sold off to the highest bidders. An antivirus is your best bet against these threats to your data.

Many companies, such as AVG and Avira, offer free versions of their products alongside paid versions, so there is always a choice for you to see which works best for you, while some operating systems may come with an inbuilt antivirus solution. Of course, there's no protection better than a mix of being careful on the internet and keeping a regularly updated backup of all data on an external device.

There are many ways to lose control of your data online, but only a few to keep control. Vigilance is a key component of protecting your digital identity, and understanding what someone wants in exchange for a product or service online is a cornerstone of that vigilance.

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