Your favorite online services may be free to use, but they come with a price: the quality of your experience and your personal data. Online data tracking is so pervasive that most of us either don’t realize the extent to which we’re being tracked, or else we’ve accepted that our privacy is the tradeoff for using the internet’s most useful and popular services. But it doesn’t have to be this way—there are ways to reclaim your data privacy.
What is data privacy?
Privacy, according to Merriam-Webster, is “freedom from unauthorized intrusion.” When it comes to browsing the internet, who is authorized to collect and use your data? What are they authorized to do with it?
It makes sense that a website or service would know and sometimes store the information that you submit on their site or while using their service. It may even seem reasonable for the site to share some of your information with third-party services that help complete a transaction. But when your behavior on one website is observed and used in ways that you don’t expect, or disseminated to third parties without your permission—that is an intrusion.
Sridhar Ramaswamy, cofounder of Neeva, likes to think about data privacy in the same way that we think about privacy in conversation. “If you speak to someone in confidence, you assume that person will remember what you told them, but that they won’t share it with other people. Data privacy is the same concept.” He defines data privacy as “the reasonable expectation that your data will be isolated within the person-service relationship, and will not be used in ways that surprise you.”
For example, if you often read sports news on your favorite media site, it would be reasonable for that site to suggest more of its sports content for you to read next. But it might feel like a violation of your privacy if the news site shared your reading habits with an advertising company, and you started seeing sports-related ads all over the internet.
What information may or may not be private?
In order to ensure data privacy, you should think about how the following categories of information are being used by online services.
Location. Most websites collect your IP address (a general location marker set by your internet service provider) whenever you visit. Some services take things a step further by using your device’s location services to pinpoint your exact location, or even keeping track of your background location at all times via your mobile device.
Browsing history. Whether through your browser itself or a network of third-party cookies, it’s possible for some services to know about almost every site you visit.
Search history. Search engines and other search-enabled services, including maps, media streaming services, and shopping sites, often keep track of everything you’ve searched for.
Purchase history. Shopping sites can use third-party cookies to share information about your purchases or what you’ve put in your cart with others, or they can hang onto the information for their own use.
Audio. Devices equipped with microphones, including smartphones, have the capability to record and transcribe your audio. This can lead to the fear that your voice-activated assistant (or other apps) might be listening in on your private conversations.
What’s the difference between data privacy and data security?
Data privacy and security are like two sides of the same coin. You need both to be safe on the internet, but they refer to different things.
Data security is about protecting your sensitive information from illegitimate access. (Think: hackers.)
Data security risks
Risks to data security can come from:
- Using an internet connection that isn’t secure. (Snoopers can eavesdrop on your internet connections!)
- Visiting a website with an insecure URL
- Falling prey to a phishing scam.
- Data breaches to services with which you’ve shared personal information
- Reusing passwords
Ways to increase your data security
Luckily, there are tools designed to enhance data security.
- Multi-factor authentication. Also known as two-factor authentication, multi-factor authentication is a feature used by many services that requires you to provide at least two forms of identification. For example, you may enter your username and password into a website, then receive a text message with a unique code that you also enter into the site. This can keep your account safe even if someone gains access to your password.
- Data breach notifications. How will you know if your password or other personal information has been compromised? In the United States, legislation requires businesses to notify users in the event of a security breach involving personal data. If you receive such an email, it’s a good idea to change your passwords immediately and check any sensitive accounts.
- Password managers. We all know about the importance of using unique passwords, but it’s impossible to memorize the hundreds of logins we accumulate. Password managers provide an easy way to keep track of all of your passwords, and can even suggest unique, secure passwords for every website you visit.
Data privacy centers around voluntary sharing of information. Keeping data private means keeping it isolated within the person-service relationship, and not having it be used in ways that are surprising.
Risks to data privacy
Risks to data privacy include:
- Lack of transparency: If you don’t know exactly how your personal data is being used, stored, or shared, it’s impossible to determine whether your data is being kept private.
- Ad-supported business models: The majority of free services on the internet are ads-supported. This creates an inherent conflict of interest between user privacy and monetization, since users’ data is extremely valuable to advertisers.
Laws and regulations governing data privacy
As online advertising has grown, advertisers have faced pressure at the industry, national, and state levels to provide more transparency regarding data collection. These are some of the highlights of the movement:
- 2017: Apple began automatically blocking third-party cookies on its browser, Safari.
- 2020: The California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) went into effect. This law gives California residents the right to know what data businesses have on them, to delete that information, and to prevent that information from being sold. Although the law technically only protects Californians, it has actually resulted in greater privacy control for all internet users, since it wouldn’t make sense for most websites to have separate policies for users from California.
- 2021: Apple introduced a new feature called App Tracking Transparency, which requires iPhone apps to get your permission before tracking your activity across other apps or websites.
4 common data privacy issues and solutions
If it feels like your internet experience is anything but private, rest assured: There are some simple fixes for regaining some of your privacy online.
Problem: Advertisers track your movement across the internet.
Solution: Block third-party cookies.
Third-party cookies are one of the main ways that your information is disseminated around the internet. Thankfully, there are a few different strategies for blocking them.
- Use an anti-tracking browser extension. Both Neeva and Privacy Badger offer browser extensions that automatically block third-party cookies and other types of tracking.
- Use a browser that automatically blocks third-party cookies, or change your browser settings to block third-party cookies. Apple’s Safari and Mozilla’s Firefox both block third-party cookies by default, and Google Chrome also offers the option of blocking third-party cookies. For a fresh start, you can delete all cookies.
- Change ad settings. Both Google and Facebook allow you to opt out of some of their personalized advertising.
- Visit https://myaccount.google.com/data-and-personalization to opt out of Google’s personalized ads
- Visit https://facebook.com/adpreferences/ad_settings to opt out of Facebook’s.
- Visit https://optout.aboutads.info to opt out of personalized ads for (some) other websites.
While changing your settings won’t necessarily stop Google and Facebook from collecting your data, it will stop annoying personalized ads and it will also make tracking your data less valuable.
Problem: Your search history isn’t private.
Solution: Switch to a private search engine.
Search is typically the first and most personal way that we use the internet, which is why your search history is so valuable to advertisers. To ensure that your searches aren’t being used in a way that violates your privacy, switch to a private search engine like Neeva or Duckduckgo.
Problem: Apps constantly track your location.
Solution: Change your location settings.
The built-in GPS is one of the most useful features of smartphones. But it also enables advertisers to follow your precise movements at all times. To prevent this data from being used in ways that you aren’t comfortable with, periodically check which apps are accessing your background location.
“There is no one on this planet who needs to know your background location history,” says Ramaswamy. Background location is a permission you shouldn’t grant.
Problem: Websites store your information for indefinite amounts of time.
Solution: Delete stored information.
Thanks to the CCPA, websites and services are obligated to delete your data, if you ask. Start with the services that know the most about you, like Google and Facebook. Google allows you to delete information under the categories “Web & App Activity,” “YouTube History,” or “Location History,” all of which are under the Data & personalization section of your Google account.
You can delete off-Facebook history (data other apps and websites have shared with Facebook) here, but the only way to remove all the information you’ve shared on Facebook is to permanently delete your account.
Neeva is the world’s first private, ad-free search engine, committed to showing you the best result for every search. We will never sell or share your data with anyone, especially advertisers. Sign up today and try Neeva for yourself: neeva.com/signup.