First there was the leak of a million classified military and diplomatic documents to the Wikileaks website, followed by the National Security Agency and the Snowden affair. Think a data leak couldn’t happen to you? Think again. Harmful breaches of people’s online privacy are reported daily in our newspapers and on the TV. The erosion of our privacy online is clear. Let’s face it. On a daily basis, our private information is being accessed, analyzed and used by many organizations to create a profile on each of us and our online activity. As in the real world, there is no way to be completely safe on the Internet. But it is possible to cover up our online tracks, and by taking a few basic steps, we can protect our online privacy and avoid privacy exposures.

Don’t leave your computer exposed:

  • Choose strong passwords. Use different passwords for different accounts and change them regularly.
  • Lock down your privacy settings. Most social networks will allow you to customize your privacy settings, which in turn dictate how others can search for and see you. So select the highest level of privacy settings available.
  • Remember, if you do use a social network or browse online, you have already compromised some of your privacy even if you never post or buy anything. Even if all of your settings are set to Private, these companies will still use your information to attempt to sell you things.
  • Turn off auto-complete or at least turn it off where it matters. Never leave yourself logged on to sites, and never set your computer to remember passwords.
  • Most Web-browsing packages create histories, but these can be deleted (look for “Tools,” “Options” and “Delete history”). Beware, though, your Internet service provider will still have a record of where you've been online.
  • Be careful downloading apps; there is a risk of rogue apps stealing your data. Even legitimate apps usually ask for far more access to your personal data than they need.
  • Keep your computer’s security software up to date.

What goes online stays online

Some people seem to leave their common sense behind when they go online. They do and say things they would never dream of doing or saying in the real world.

The consequences can be harmful to reputations and careers. Make sure you are not one of them. Limit the information you share. The less personal information you post on the Internet, the better. Browse the Internet with care. It’s a lot like moving around your city – you know where is safe and where is not, so browse with the same caution. Don’t mix business with pleasure – try to keep your work life and your playtime apart online. Have one set of social media accounts reserved for your vacation pictures and those unconsidered tweets from the nightclub, and where you perhaps do not use your real name. You can then have separate accounts for your professional persona. Just be careful not to mix them up. At the very least, do not use your work email address for personal use. Keep separate, private email accounts for your private life.

Do a Web search for yourself, and see yourself as others do. Use any popular search engine to search your own name, and you’ll be surprised how much information about you pops up. Remove any information that you want hidden, and close unused accounts on old sites. There are services available that will block companies from tracking your browsing and that will remove your profile from leading data sites; consider subscribing to these if you are worried about your online presence.

Help protect the kids online

Cyberspace is often a place far more familiar to children than their parents, and one where they roam unsupervised far and wide. Parents should set clear guidelines for their children about when and how they may safely reveal personal information and explain to them the dangers the cyberworld can pose to them.

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