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Privacy vs Security: The new online dilemma

There’s no shortage of benefits that the internet has brought. Chief among those benefits are connecting people regardless of where they are and bringing them closer- even if only virtually. Naturally, when we develop relationships we give up a piece of ourselves, we release some of our privacy. Day to day grinds and the litany of passwords we have to remember also makes us prone to not properly secure the information we do want private. Is there a way to browse the internet both securely and privately?

Know the difference between privacy and security

In order to have a constructive conversation about privacy and security, you must know the difference between them. Security relates to the integrity and availability of data. It answers the question of how easy information is to access. To help visualize this, imagine that a piece of information was money. Leaving $1,000 on your coffee table in your living room is not very secure. However, if you put that $1,000 in a safe in your bedroom closet you have just increased security and decreased the likelihood of others finding your money. Although online, the stakes are most often much, much higher than a thousand dollars.

There are several ways to increase your security online, strong passwords, anti-virus software, and keeping all software and operating systems updated are just a few examples. The cyber security industry is projected to be worth $120 billion in 2017. Needless to say, options to improve your online security are virtually endless.

What is privacy then?

Privacy is best described as the appropriate use of information. When you tucked that $1,000 away in your safe to improve security you simultaneously increased your privacy. Now, when people enter your living room they won’t be immediately aware that you have $1,000 in the house. Online, however, privacy does get a bit more complicated. Whenever you sign up for a new account, fill out a questionnaire, or do virtually anything else online you are entrusting your personal information, and thus privacy, to someone else. In essence, you are telling a friend a secret- in hopes that they keep that secret.

The problem with privacy arises from the fact that everyone has different expectations. To you, your salary might be a private piece of information; one that you only tell your closest friend and significant other. But that doesn’t ring true for everyone. Likewise, the websites that you interact with a daily basis don’t know what you deem private unless you tell them. The most obvious example is Facebook. You can choose to make your profile public so anyone can see it-or not, to display your full birthday- or not, to show where and when you went to school and worked- or not.

The curious case of privacy

Once you can distinguish the difference between privacy and security then you can better understand the two as they pertain to the internet. In order to have any kind of semblance of privacy, you must have security.  Without proper security, you lack even the choice to have privacy.

Continuing the above example, leaving $1,000 on your coffee table you relinquish the right to expect any type of privacy regarding the money. However, let’s say someone you trust is coming over, and you don’t mind if they see the money so you leave it there. The next day, though, you get a call from a stranger saying that they have a home entertainment system for sale for $1,000. Oddly enough, you have been looking at home entertainment systems, and you have the money for it. Still, you can’t help but wonder how this complete stranger knew both of those pieces of information. You call your friend who visited the day before to see if they told anyone about the money. Sure enough, they told a friend who works with home entertainment systems that you want to buy one and you have enough money for one. The friend defends their decision to share the information because you had the money in plain view and they didn’t think it was a private matter.

This is a common scheme amongst online companies. In this scenario, the money still represents information, but your trusted friend represents the various websites where you have accounts or sites that you simply visit. Have you ever wondered how advertisements for items you searched before can show up on your newsfeed (like that Chewbacca mask)? That’s because sites use cookies to track where you browse online and Facebook allows paying customers to retarget those cookies for customized ads when you return to Facebook. They do this, of course, in hopes to grab your attention and spend money with them. If an advertiser showed you a Darth Vader mask you might not be interested, but now that the customized ad shows Chewbacca they’ve definitely got your attention.

This is a very simple example of how your privacy is used in exchange for a better bottom line by online companies. It’s therefore imperative that you keep vigilant watch over your privacy- no one else will.

Increasing your privacy

The key to privacy is what are you willing to put online, and how secure is it?

Fortunately, with due diligence, you can substantially improve your privacy. If you use Google Chrome then go to settings and disable cookies from sites you haven’t visited, you can also go the extra step to disable all cookies (you can also use incognito mode in Chrome). With a 90% market share, it might hard to fathom but using a search engine other than Google, like the respected DuckDuckGo, that keeps no records of search history.

Believe it or not, there are other browsers besides Chrome; Comodo Dragon, TOR, and Epic Privacy Browser all come highly recommended. Each offers varying degrees of privacy so do some research to find the one that best suits your privacy expectations.

Virtual private networks (VPN) is another route that some choose to go. This comes in the form of software that you download that essentially tricks your internet service provider (ISP) into thinking that you are using the internet from a different location (IP address). This adds anonymity, though, not privacy.

One often overlooked aspect of privacy is the networks themselves. Using Wi-Fi in a public setting can lead to a huge leak in your privacy. This is because of a lack of security. A talented hacker can infiltrate an unsecured network and monitor all traffic that passes through that network. Generally, you never want to enter highly sensitive information- like logging into your bank account- on a public network. Another common scheme is for someone to setup a fake hotspot in a public area. They might set up a network with a name very similar to networks close by. So, when you unknowingly connect to their fake network they can easily see the data- no hacking required.

Use security to your advantage

As mentioned above, what all this means is that privacy is in your hands. Security is your best friend; simple things like choosing passwords that are long and strong and installing antivirus software on your computer will go a long way. Naturally, companies who hold sensitive information want to keep their user’s information secure. When a new security hole is found (most) companies rush to remove the vulnerability in the form of an update.

The Trident malware that targeted iPhones through three vulnerabilities and allowed a hacker to monitor anything done on the phone- even use the device’s camera remotely- is a perfect example. Apple was an able patch the vulnerabilities within 10 days after the discovery in a previously scheduled update. However, if you don’t install the update then you are not protected.

There are several other ways to improve security to protect your privacy. Take the time to do some research and educate yourself about the measures you should be taking to protect yourself.