With online data breaches happening almost daily, it’s natural to want to protect your privacy completely. But for most, the technological steps needed to do so are impractical.
Which is why you may be better off aiming to be anonymous online rather than completely private. The concepts may sound similar, and are certainly related, but being anonymous online is much easier to achieve, so is more likely to become habit.
So, what’s the difference?
Put simply, privacy online refers to stopping people collecting your personal data and tracking your activities.
Being anonymous online isn’t so much about avoiding being tracked (which is virtually impossible) but about making it harder for data collectors to know that it’s you they’re tracking.
It’s a subtle but important distinction that plays out in a number of different ways. Consumer group CHOICE lists a number of ways you can stay anonymous online.
Stop using your real name online
This might sound obvious, but if you don’t want your online activity being attached to you, stop attaching your real name to it.
You might have noticed friends on Facebook who aren’t listed under their real names, or a slightly altered version of it. Or the millions of anonymous Twitter accounts chattering constantly.
While some people might be hiding their identity for nefarious purposes, it’s also a very effective way to cut down on the amount of data companies can attribute to you. There are also very real personal safety reasons for not using your real name online.
Don’t use the same email address for everything
If you use the same email address for every website or service you sign up for, this provides a way for companies to ascertain that it’s the same person behind various accounts. This is especially true if the services are owned by the same company.
If you’re trying to achieve online anonymity, set up a few different email addresses (that don’t include your real name) with various email providers to use with different sites and services. This will slow down your identification at the very least.
The vast majority of messaging apps are not completely private, despite assertions to the contrary. If the app doesn’t use end-to-end-encryption (E2EE), then the company that owns the app can read all your conversations and record any activity.
The SMS messages you send from your phone are not encrypted, and can be read and stored by your mobile provider. They also pass through a large number of servers and towers before reaching their final destination, giving hackers lots of points at which to intercept the message.
Consider using a messaging app that uses E2EE by default, such as Signal or WhatsApp. It can sometimes be difficult to convince family or friends to switch to a new messaging app, but the privacy benefits are substantial.
Apple’s iMessage feature does use E2EE – but there’s a caveat. Any iMessages backed up to iCloud are also encrypted, but Apple holds the key to this encryption, meaning it could theoretically access it.
Set social media to private
You can set most social media accounts to private, meaning they’re not visible to the public, only people you have granted access. Obviously, this won’t hide your activity from the company who owns the social media site, but it can protect you from being identified by any third parties.
Also consider the amount of information you give to social media companies. Do you really need to list things such as your location, date of birth or gender? Every piece of information you give makes it just that little bit easier to identify you.
How often do you use your real name online? Do you use the same email address for multiple accounts? Let us know in the comments section below.
Also read: Google Maps tips and tricks you may not know