How to remain (mostly) invisible online

While complete anonymity these days is nearly impossible, experts have some tips, and tools, they recommend for maintaining privacy and keeping your digital footprint as minimal as possible

invisible man
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With such a heavy reliance on the Internet for all sorts of interactions and transactions and the many ways people are connected via their mobile or desktop devices, is it possible to remain invisible online?

While this might be a challenge for many, there are ways for privacy-obsessed users to leave as little a trace as possible when venturing into cyberspace.

Users should first re-evaluate what’s important to them when it comes to privacy, says Frank Ahearn, a privacy expert and author of the book “How to Disappear.”

[ 8 tips to enhance your online privacy ]

“Is it OK that apps have access to their GPS [global positioning system] location, their camera, photos and phone book?” Ahearn says. “Privacy is an odd sort of thing. It is not tangible, and sometimes out-of-sight leads to out-of-mind.”

Still, it’s important to consider when people use a medium owned or operated by a third party, such as the Internet, an elevator with a camera or a mobile app that requires connectivity. “We need to accept that there presently is no privacy in those circumstances,” Ahearn says. “Therefore, it is less about maintaining and more about personal awareness.”

Internet users can better protect their privacy online “by thinking of their private information as gold; do not give it away,” Ahearn says. “Place a personal value on private information and recognize that sites want to profit [from] the information they extract. The best way to combat that is to supply untrue information. Deception has a positive purpose in the digital world,” and in fact is the best ally a user has to truly protect his online information.

Frank Ahearn, a privacy expert and author

Ahearn is not a believer in privacy software and similar tools. “We do not know if anonymizers or privacy email sites work or are telling the truth about their services,” he says. “The average person cannot tell a real Babe Ruth signature from a fake, nor can the average person test if software or Web sites are truthful in their claim.”

The only way not to be tracked online is to not make a connection, Ahearn says. An example he cites is the use of a prepaid mobile phone.

“The idea is when a user makes a call their identity is not known since no identifiers are attached to the phone,” Ahearn says. “This is half-right. When the user purchased the phone from the store, the transaction was captured on camera and so they are connected to the phone. An identity can be discovered from this action.” If the user sent someone else to make the purchase, that person would be connected to the phone.”

The problem with privacy tools is users do not know if the tools offered will actually work to protect their privacy, Ahearn says. “I tell all of my clients that if they cannot prove the tool, it does not work and a different strategy must considered,” he says. “I believe Snapchat guaranteed photos would immediately disappear. But they lied and look what happened.”

Still, vendors are offering a number of products designed to help users maintain their privacy online, and these provide a variety of features designed to help keep information private (see sidebar article).

In addition to these products, for those users who want to get online and not employ deception tactics, there are a number of options to enhance privacy.

One is to use a virtual private network (VPN) when online. “This way your data traffic is encrypted, and thus difficult to detect by spies or any hackers—whether you use a phone, computer or tablet,” says Robert Siciliano, an identity theft expert. “Data transmission may still occur due to ads, but the VPN will put a stifling effect on it.”

“There are inexpensive anonymizing VPN services that are easy to use,” says Randy Abrams, research director at NSS Labs, an information security research and advisory company. “These services hide your IP address, which does significantly increase privacy, even when using public Internet services.”

Another tactic is to install Hypertext Transfer Protocol Secure (HTTPS), a communications protocol for secure communication over a network. Privacy seekers should install HTTPS browser plugins wherever they can, Siciliano says. “It’s free, though currently not available for smartphones,” he says. “HTTPS means security on the visited Web site.”

Users can also be less visible by limiting the information they share online.

“Follow the minimum necessary rule; only fill in the fields that are mandatory when filling out online forms,” says Vinny Sakore, cloud security program manager at ICSA Labs, a vendor-neutral firm that tests and certifies security products. “When prompted, do not ‘opt in’ unless you absolutely need to. Stay away from contests and ‘free giveaways’ where your personal information is requested.”

Users can also quit or limit their activity on social networks. “One of the most common and effective steps to reduce one’s footprint is to give up all social networks,” Abrams says. “Giving up social networks can reduce both targeted advertising and stalking.”

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