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Your privacy on the internet

Apr 28, 2021 | Newsletter, Advice, Resources

A few people have mentioned the Gener8 pitch on Dragon’s Den to us, which aired recently. The idea is you get paid for seeing adverts and theoretically take control of your data and privacy.

A slightly cynical view is that if someone is willing to pay you for your data, it shows quite how valuable it is to them, which is why so much effort goes into collecting it.

We thought now would be a good time to talk about your privacy when you’re using the internet, whether you’re browsing the web, using email, apps on your phone or anything else that might be listening to or watching you.

Trading privacy for convenience

In a way, we’ve always traded privacy for convenience. Becoming friends with the local butcher might have given you a bit of extra black market meat during the war, but gave them a valuable source of gossip to share; the explosion of loyalty cards in the 1990s, beginning with the Tesco Clubcard, gave us the opportunity to share our intimate shopping habits in return for vouchers. On the internet, we use websites mostly for free, but give up our data in return.

We’re all familiar with those adverts which follow you around the web. You search for a new pair of shoes, for instance, and then for weeks all you see is adverts, everywhere, for shoes — especially galling if you’ve already bought them and then see a better deal!

How you’re tracked

The two most common methods of tracking you are either cookies (snippets of information stored on your computer which a website can access), or your internet connection’s IP address.

There are many others too, from the identifiers on your phone (even its battery level can be used to confirm you’re the same person, as opposed to someone else on the same internet connection), through to whether you’re logged in to Facebook or Google.

Sometimes this can be useful, for example remembering the contents of your shopping cart if you accidentally close your browser, or automatically logging you into your account when you return to a website, but the hidden benefit for businesses who want to know more about you is they can build up huge databases of information about your browsing and lifestyle habits.

Businesses usually have internet connections with dedicated IP addresses which can be identified by name: there are data-mining services which will tell you when employees from specific companies have visited your website so you can start to market to them. Email marketing software (like ours) can show, roughly, who opened the email and which links they’ve clicked on.

What you can do

It’s up to you, depending on how concerned you are about it. You can choose which apps to install on your phone; you can choose which contacts to share with Linkedin (if any), instead of all of them; you can choose to log out of your Facebook account when you’re just browsing the web.

Low level of concern — just don’t stay logged in to everything all the time (especially Facebook and Google); think carefully before you hand data over or sign-up to free services; use a password manager and two-factor authentication. Ask yourself, “why am I being given this service for free, what do they get out of it?”. Browsers such as Firefox offer you additional privacy options. Always guard your personal information jealously, in particular social media posts asking about your first pet’s name or your mother’s maiden name.

Medium level of concern — most browsers have a private mode which will clear out cookies whenever you close them. You can still be tracked, but less ubiquitously. Close accounts you don’t need and ask for your data to be deleted. Consider using search engines such as DuckDuckGo or Ecosia, which gather less data about you. You could switch from WhatsApp (owned by Facebook) to an independent messenger service such as Signal. Review the privacy settings on your phone and social media accounts.

High level of concern — you could use a proxy server, which anonymises your internet use even more.

Ultra-high level of concern — we’ve heard typewriters are growing in popularity, but even they can reveal more than you might think.

Privacy issues affect both individuals and businesses, from the contents of your shopping basket to the research you’re doing to open new business premises.

Ultimately, if you use the internet, pay with credit cards or have a mobile phone, you are never going to entirely escape some kind of tracking and analysis. But a little thoughtfulness goes a long way, and make sure you don’t give away too much too easily.

We’re revamping the ‘resources’ section on our website at the moment, so will add some useful links and articles there. If you’ve got any questions or suggestions in the meantime, just let us know.

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