‘Internet privacy’ is a term you usually only hear when it’s been breached – and that’s something that’s happening all too often lately.
These days, it’s more important than ever to take some personal responsibility for our own internet privacy and do everything we can to ensure our private data stays that way. So what does that involve?
The good news is that there are some relatively simple steps to prevent personal data leaking from the computers we use, whether desktops or laptops, smartphones or tablets. The different numbers of operating systems and web browsers we encounter every day can complicate things a little – but what you need to do with Windows, for example, is much the same as what you need to do with Android; it’s just how you do it that differs slightly.
Tip 1: Don’t save login details in your web browser
All web browsers will offer to save usernames and passwords when you enter them to sign into an online account or website. This can be very convenient, since saving details means you don’t need to remember them – and no one wants to remember the long passwords we all should use for improved security.
The problem is that saving passwords in your web browser means anyone can get at them if you leave your PC unattended. Most browsers simply fill in the username and password boxes automatically as soon as you visit a page that asks for them – and that’s about as insecure as it gets.
So a better solution is to use a dedicated password manager such as LastPass or KeePass on your PC or smartphone (or both) that saves your personal details separately to your web browser. Those passwords are then only accessible when you unlock the password manager, so even if someone can get to your web browser, they can’t get at your online accounts.
Tip 2: Pick a strong password
Speaking of passwords, you should always try to pick the most secure one that a site allows. It’s a case of the longer and less obvious the better here, so if that means 20 characters with a mix of letters, numbers and symbols, so be it.
The best passwords are ones that are generated randomly, but that’s only because we’re so bad at picking passwords ourselves. ‘123456’ and ‘password’ regularly appear at the top of ‘most popular passwords’ lists, for example – so if you use one along those lines, you’re practically begging to be hacked.
Passwords also need to be unique, which means using a different one for every site you log into. That’s where random passwords also have an edge. Thinking up a different password for 20 different sites isn’t easy, but using the same one for each risks a cascading failure: when one of them is breached, they all are.
Even Derren Brown would struggle to remember 20 different passwords like Losh3oyt3vE1oF0gEj9k, but you don’t need to. Just use a dedicated password manager to generate and store them securely instead.
Tip 3: Clear your web browser cache
All web browsers save certain files as you surf the internet. This is usually quite useful, as it means they don’t have to keep downloading the parts of a web page that haven’t changed between visits, which speeds up web browsing. The bad news is that this can also give away more information than you’d like about your browsing habits: someone just has to look at the browser ‘cache’ to see which websites you’ve visited recently.
Fortunately, all PC web browsers make it easy to clear their cache and you just have to poke about in their settings to find the appropriate option. The same option can be harder to find in web browsers on smartphones and tablets – and you may need to look in both the main device settings and those for the individual browser.
Tip 4: Log out of websites
If you’re the only person who uses your computer, then you can stay logged into any websites you use. If your computer is shared with other people, though, or you’re using one in a public place (such as a shop), always make sure you log out when you’ve finished using the site. If you don’t, the next person to use the computer will have access to your logged-in pages and any personal information they keep.
Tip 5: Stay away from dodgy websites
Some perfectly legitimate sites are hacked from time to time without the owner’s, or the users’, knowledge. If the hacker plants malware on the site, there’s little you can do about it other than rely on your browser’s built-in malware countermeasures to stop it – so always install the latest version on whatever computer you’re using.
Some websites, however, are well known for stealing personal information and spreading malware – and the fact that those sites often deal in illegal material themselves should make it obvious which ones we mean. So the safest course of action is to stay away from such sites rather than put yourself at risk. Again, your browser’s malware countermeasures will help keep you safe to an extent, but they won’t stop you handing over your credit card details if tricked into doing so.
BT broadband customers can use the free BT Protect, which warns you if you’re visiting a dangerous website.
Tip 6: Protect your networks
It’s easy to stumble across suspicious websites when you’re surfing the internet, but any protective steps you take on your desktop or laptop PC will only do so much. Browse the web on a smartphone, and that protection won’t be much use – but there are still things you can do.
The first is to talk to your broadband provider about any parental controls they offer. These are often built into the wi-fi router they provide as part of the service — BT’s Parental Controls are available through its HomeHub, for example.
You should also talk to both your broadband and mobile network providers about any content filters they offer. Once enabled, they affect any computer using that internet connection – desktop or laptop, smartphone or tablet. That makes provider content filters particularly useful for families who have too many devices to manage individually, and devices that are used both at home and when out and about.
For a comprehensive and easy to use resource of the most up-to-date information for keeping your child safe online, BT recommends you go to internetmatters.org.