How to protect your privacy online without racking your brain
By Hillary Orinde
| November 20th 2019
If the reactions are anything go by, the news that the State demanded private information about Kenyans from social networking giant Facebook is highly unwelcome.
In a recently released transparency report, Facebook said it had seen a spike on such requests from Kenya in the first half of 2019.
The government asked Facebook five times to divulge information related to user accounts. Worryingly, no proper legal channels were followed in making four of the five requests, says Facebook.
In the one demand the requisite procedure was followed, Facebook complied. It, however, did not reveal which account was affected, only noting it was a legal process request.
Social media platforms routinely provide data to law enforcement on specific persons.
“Facebook responds to government requests for data in accordance with applicable law and our terms of service. Each and every request we receive is carefully reviewed for legal sufficiency and we may reject or require greater specificity on requests that appear overly broad or vague,” the social networking titan said.
The demands are not limited to Kenya. The governments of all the countries were Facebook content is not restricted asked to snoop on users’ data.
The United States made 50,714 user data requests of 82,461 users/accounts in the half-year period. India was second with 22,684 requests for user data of 33,324 users/accounts.
Privacy now an illusion
This new development is once again shining the spotlight on the internet and social media — the global record of our streams of consciousness — is anything ever private?
Governments are snooping. The desire by governments to know who is who and what they are doing is at an all-time high. It gets worrying because such data can be weaponised as threats or even sold by crooks to marketers and propagandists who would then use your profile to bombard you with certain messages.
Does this mean that the age of personal privacy is over?
While it would be a mistake to think that the data we store online can ever be 100 per cent safe, it would also be an error to assume that we can’t make it secure.
Here some simple precautions you can take to preserve your privacy online.
Disable cloud storage
The risk of, say, losing all our photographs has forced us to heavily rely on cloud computing. It is a booming business and increasingly smartphones are automatically uploading data to remote servers.
If you do not want sensitive data to land on malicious hands, turn off such automatic uploads and only back up those you want. Encrypt the back-up data with a strong password. Hackers will find it hard to get in.
You have probably asked yourself, what makes a good password. Experts say the key is in length and not complexity. Essentially, an easy-to-remember password such as Girlsloveorinde is better than Qp1!9.
Hackers will take way longer to get that passwords as there are more total possible combinations of 15 characters than six.
A survey by Ars Technica found that 22 per cent of ‘strong’ eight-character passwords that contained numbers and symbols could be cracked after 10 billion guesses – compared with only 12 per cent of 16 character passwords.
Magic of VPN
Effective virtual private networks (VPN) are not free. They are, however, a gem in scrambling your online data activity when you are on a public network. Eavesdroppers will find it hard to keep track of your passwords, locations, browsing history among others.
Enable two-factor authentication
Also known as multi-factor authentication (MFA), it is an additional security layer that doesn’t guarantee access from a standard password.
When you enter the correct password on a website, it won’t immediately offer you access to your account – instead, it might trigger an automated call or text message to your mobile phone that requires you to punch in a PIN to complete the sign-in process.
Confirming the identity twice should be more secure than once.
Use private search engines
Most browsers have their own search engines. The searches you key are often tracked under the guise of building a database to give you quicker and better search experiences.
Unknown to you, these searches then can be traced to your personal identity by linking them to your computer, account, or IP address.
Private search engines do not personalise search results.
Are you reading this article on a computer, check the URL (uniform resource locator) on the browser, does it start with “http” or “https”? If it is http, it means that the connection between you and the website is open and anyone can see what you are viewing.
There is a lock icon on the address bar, switch it on and forever keep it so. If your favourite browser doesn’t have that feature, download a browser extension that helps you encrypt your web browsing.
Watch out for phising
Phishing employs psychological analysis and social engineering to trick users into clicking a malicious link. This malicious link can contain anything from viruses to cryptojackers.
Beware of messages from people you don't know. Most importantly, remember that if it's too good to be true, it most likely is. Don't open messages from people or organisation you don't know.
You must have ignored a system update on your phone or computer at least once. Maybe you are out of reach of free Wi-Fi and isn’t ready to spend use all your data on an update ‘you can live without’ but it could cost you a fortune.
Updates often fix many vulnerabilities that could jeopardise your online privacy. You can alternatively turn on the auto-update feature on your device and worry less about constantly checking if developers have sent a new version.
Suffer the minor inconvenience updates cause early rather than risk getting caught in the whirlwind of problems hackers can cause should you be got.
If you don’t want it seen, do not post it
The golden rule about ensuring your online privacy is watching what you share on social media. Avoid giving your phone number if you don’t want it known. Avoid telling your location if you do not want anyone to know.
It can only be a secret if it stays within you.
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