It can be pretty overwhelming to protect your computer from all Internet threats nowadays. Not sure where to start? Then the following advice will put you ahead of the curve, privacy-wise.
1. Default to HTTPS Websites
The Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP) is a protocol that essentially “downloads” web pages on your system. That’s how you can watch and read your favorite content every day. HTTPS is simply the secured (S) version of HTTP, and uses an encryption protocol to obfuscate the data you send and receive from that website.
Ideally, you should use only HTTPS websites, as anybody can see what you’re doing on an HTTP-only connection. Of course, there are still a lot of those unsecured sites around, so try using a browser extension like HTTPS Everywhere to force such a connection wherever possible. Most browsers tell you when your connection won’t be secure, so use proper precautions if you absolutely need HTTP access.
2. Use a Strong Firewall
Firewalls scan any traffic passing through your home PC for malicious behavior and blocks unsafe connections. You can set up rules of your own to filter out any traffic you don’t want, whether it’s by IP address, TCP/IP port, or domain name (www.example.com).
Of course, firewalls can’t keep out 100% of malicious traffic (though if you configure them right, it gets pretty close). Give yourself a safety net and several extra benefits with a Virtual Private Network (VPN) instead.
3. VPNs Are Lifesavers
And quite literally, for those whose activities depend on uncovering or revealing dangerous secrets (journalists or whistleblowers, for example). But even outside those extreme cases, a secure VPN is the best way to keep your data safe from hackers, ISPs who want to sell your information to the highest bidders, as well as government spying (NSA & co.)
Just like HTTPS sites, VPNs use encryption to make your data unreadable to unwelcome third parties. The difference is that a VPN encrypts all network traffic, not just browser data on specific websites.
At the same time, VPNs hide your real IP address and replace it with the IP of the server you’re currently connected to. This provides a plus to privacy, as nobody can detect your approximate location through your IP anymore.
Just be wary of “free” VPNs, of which a majority:
- Log and sell your data (as opposed to your ISP doing it)
- The ones that don’t tend to use aggressive advertising – bills need to be paid somehow
- Outright contain malware that could be used to steal your login and payment info, or worse
While we’re on the topic – one thing a VPN can’t protect you from is if you somehow download, install, or click on malware online. For that, you’ll need good anti-malware software.
4. Anti-malware Solutions
Malicious software (malware) is an all-encompassing term that refers to everything from viruses to ransomware. In 2017, you might have heard that a ransomware called WannaCry has basically shut down the UK medical system, along with other government systems and private companies in over 150 countries. Over a million computers are still exposed to the threat.
Even more common than malware are phishing attacks – in which cybercriminals pose as trustworthy sources to get you to expose your data or, you guessed it, install malware. Don’t take chances with your PC and get some decent anti-malware.
5. The Peril of Privacy Policies
Yet it’s more important than ever to see what data companies collect and how it affects your privacy. The EU GDPR may have prompted some companies to make their privacy policies more transparent and easier to read, but the average word count has actually increased by almost 26%.
There are websites such as Terms of Service; Didn’t Read that give you a quick rundown of major services’ privacy policies (5 sentences max) and what you’re agreeing to.
Find ways to opt out of the data collection that takes place on those platforms. Luckily, some of them have a variation on “Manage Data Settings” right in those irritating GDPR cookie pop-ups many click “Accept” on without a second thought.
For others who don’t offer the option, it’s better to find alternative services that don’t invade your privacy as much (preferably at all). For example, some recommend using DuckDuckGo or Startpage instead of Google as a search engine. And speaking of abusive data collection, let’s take a look at one of the worst offenders out there.
6. Block Data Collection on Windows
The sheer amount of data Windows 10 collects about its users is no secret. Even after years of patches, Microsoft is still being investigated for privacy concerns. Bottom line: if privacy is a major concern to you, then using Windows 10 is absolutely not recommended. Try one of these other operating systems on for size (obviously not Chrome OS, as you’d just be replacing Microsoft with Google for data collection).
If it’s too much of a hassle to get used to a new operating system (completely understandable), then you might want to check out this helpful guide. It’ll allow you to disable most of the data collection and remove a lot of the bloatware that comes with Windows 10.
Just as a fair warning, the creator of the guide stopped updating it as of July 5th 2019 because he literally got tired of the OS “breaking with every update.” By the way, if we’re to believe the words of a former Microsoft employee, these buggy updates won’t stop any time soon. Further, with every update you risk having to manually disable everything again.