Top 10 Ways to Protect Privacy Online

Top Ten Ways to Protect Privacy Online

1. Look for privacy policies on Web Sites:

Web sites can collect a lot of information about your visit — what computer you use, what type of hardware and software you have, what Web sites you have visited. Web sites that ask you to provide even a small amount of personal information can tie the data you provide to your browsing habits.

When you go to a Web site that has no privacy policy, write and tell the company that you are a user of their site, your privacy is important to you and you would like to see them post a policy. CDT has developed the Privacy Watchdog site to help you.

An increasing number of Web sites has begun to provide privacy policies that detail the sites’ information practices. Look for these policies and read them carefully. While privacy statements are not the only answer to online privacy risks, the effort should be encouraged and commended.

CDT’s Web Site Privacy Policies page.

2. Get a separate account for your personal e-mail:

Often, online users do not realize that e-mail sent from their work accounts is likely to be an open book to their employers. Even if you send an e-mail from your home, a copy is often stored on your employer’s main computer server. Your boss has a legal right to read any and all correspondence in this account or on your work computer at any time.

Getting a separate account for home allows you to check your personal messages without using your workplace e-mail server. Some private accounts can be configured to enable you to check your personal mail from work without downloading it onto your company computer.

3. Teach your kids that giving out personal information online means giving it to strangers:

Teach your children that they need your permission before they can give out their name, address or other information about themselves or the family.

Several years ago, a number of Web sites encouraged children to give information about themselves or their family; some enticed kids with games and free gifts. In 1998, a law was passed requiring companies to gain parental consent before collecting personal information from children under 13 years old. If you are concerned about a Web site collecting information from children without consent, you should communicate your concern to the Federal Trade Commission at

4. Clear your memory cache after browsing:

After you browse the Web, copies of all accessed pages and images are saved on your computer’s memory. While these copies make subsequent visits to the same sites faster, the browsing record has grave implications for personal privacy, particularly if you share a computer or browse at work. You can delete most of your online trail by simply going to the “Preferences” folder in your browser and clicking on the “Empty Cache” button. Sometimes this option is in the “Advanced” menu of the browser preferences. In Internet Explorer, go to “Internet Options” from the “Tools” menu and click on “Clear History”.

5. Make sure that online forms are secure:

Online forms may be digitally transported in ways that leave them vulnerable to undesired access. Alternatively, online forms may be encrypted so that only the intended recipients can readily translate the information.

Ensuring that your information is stored and transferred in secure ways is one of the keys to protecting your privacy. Fortunately, browser companies have realized the importance of data security; newer browsers are designed to indicate whether the accessed page allows encrypted transfers. The commonly used graphics are a key, which is broken if the page is insecure, and a lock — locked is secure and unlocked is not secure. The graphic appears in the corner of the browser screen; clicking on the lock or the key will inform you of additional security information about the page. You should not input sensitive personal information about yourself (such as financial or medical data) on Web pages that are not secure.

6. Reject unnecessary cookies:

Cookies enable Web sites to store information about your visit on your own hard drive. Cookies inform site operators if you have visited the site and, if you have obtained a username and password, cookies remember that information for you. Many of the “personalized” search engines use cookies to deliver news topics that users select; sites often use these same preferences to target advertisement. Furthermore, cookies can be used to track you online and enable a creation of a profile without you realizing it. You can search your hard drive for a file with the word “cookie” in it (i.e., cookies.txt or MagicCookie) to view the cookies that have been attached to your computer. Newer browsers allow you to recognize sites that send you cookies and reject them outright by accessing the “Advanced” screen of the “Preferences” menu. In Internet Explorer, delete cookies by clicking on the “Delete Files” button in the “General” icon of “Tools”‘ “Internet Options” menu.

7. Use anonymous remailers:

Anonymity is essential to privacy and free speech. It protects whistle blowers and writers of controversial material; most simply, it may enable one to publish without a forwarding address. The e-mail technology creates problems for the right to anonymous communication since the sender of a message can be traced back through digital paths.

Created to address privacy risks and concerns, “anonymous remailers” presently allow you to send anonymous e-mail messages. One very good remailer was created as a joint project of the George Mason Society and the Global Internet Liberty Campaign and is available on the Web at

8. Keep your e-mail private, use encryption!:

E-mail is not as secure a medium as many believe.

E-mail can be easily rerouted and read by unintended third parties; messages are often saved for indefinite periods of time. Presently, there exist technologies that allow you to encrypt your messages in order to protect their privacy. Some e-mail programs (i.e., Internet Explorer Outlook and Netscape Messenger) have encryption. Pretty Good Privacy (PGP), a popular encryption software, is free for non-commercial use.

Read more on PGP and download the encryption software at

9. Use anonymizers while browsing:

From the moment you type in a Web address, a log is kept with information about your visit.

Every day, most of us walk down the street without being recognized or tracked. While anonymity is often taken for granted in the physical world, such luxury is not available online. Tools that strip out user information, thus preserving anonymity, have been created; a few are readily available on the net. Visit and

10. Opt-out of third party information sharing:

Many online companies provide you with the option to get off (or “opt-out”) the lists that share your information. Some companies enable users to easily opt out — users are often able to do so online. A number of companies go a step further and ask your permission (opt-in) before sharing personal information that they have collected. Often, however, companies make opting out difficult or virtually impossible: addresses are buried, one cannot opt-out online, etc. CDT has created Operation Opt-Out to help you control how your personal data is collected and distributed.

Extra Tip: use common sense

Reading our Top Ten list, as well as encountering multiple news stories that portray Web companies as charlatans or worse, can instill paranoia even in the most fearless Web user. You must realize, however, that people in cyberspace are the same people you encounter every day in the physical reality: your neighbors, your colleagues. Using many of the same behavior patterns that you use in the offline environment will take you a long way. Ask yourself a set of familiar questions when you are online: Would you give your credit card number to a street vendor? Would you transact with a well-established, trusted firm? How much information does the newspaper realistically need to process a subscription? Will you be subjected to a ton of unsolicited mail if you disclose your physical or e-mail address?

Use common sense, ask questions and seek out resources. The Internet is a new medium, as was the telephone more than a century ago. If used wisely, it can connect you to a world of people, ideas and information.