It may only be a slight exaggeration that companies know more about you than you do about yourself.
Fire up your cell phone or laptop if you have any doubts. Companies can predict what you want to buy and show you ads for them. They know your birthday. They can even tell when your teenage daughter is pregnant.
(I’m not making that last one up. Target famously made that discovery a few years ago.)
In a series of recent surveys conducted by the Pew Research Center, Americans consumers say they’re afraid they’ve lost control of their personal information and that companies aren’t doing enough to protect the customer data they collect. A majority of Americans (64 percent) have personally experienced a major data breach, the poll found.
“People are interested in disappearing online,” says Caleb Chen, who specializes in digital currency issues for London Trust Media, a provider of private internet products. “It’s a sign of the times.”
Lowering your profile is possible with a few simple steps and the right technology. But absolute anonymity online may be difficult — perhaps even impossible — to achieve.
“The ability to eliminate your online footprint completely is a myth,” says David Cox, the CEO of LiquidVPN, a service that helps protect your location identity online. “However, there are many ways we can minimize our online footprint.”
Batten down your digital hatches
One simple way to sweep up that trail of electronic breadcrumbs you leave is to instruct your browser to not be promiscuous with your personal information. For example, you can tell Chrome to disallow a site to track your physical location under Preferences and then by clicking Settings, followed by Advanced and Content Settings.
You can switch to a more privacy-conscious web search engine, like DuckDuckGo.com, that doesn’t collect or share personal information, or use “incognito” mode on your browser, which doesn’t share any personal data with the site you’re visiting.
“Also, stay logged out of online services such as Gmail and Facebook,” says Michael Gregg, president of Houston-based Superior Solutions Inc., an IT consulting firm. “That makes it harder for third parties to track your activity.”
The strategy is sound. If you don’t want everyone knowing who you are, you first have to stop telling everyone who you are. You can start by checking the privacy settings on your favorite social network, which may or may not be easy to find.
For example, on Facebook, you have to click on the arrow next to the question mark on the top left of your screen. Go to “Privacy” to review and change your account settings. On Twitter, you have to click on “Profile and settings” and then “Security and privacy.”
No, they don’t like to make it easy — and for obvious reasons. That’s how social networks make their money. You are the product.
It shouldn’t take long to significantly diminish your digital footprint. But there’s still some work to be done before it’s eliminated.
Get a VPN and open Tor
A VPN, or virtual private network, is an application that encrypts your internet traffic and routes it through an intermediary server. As a result, the device’s address is masked and third parties can’t track you.
“Most VPN providers utilize shared IP addresses on their servers,” explains Paul Bischoff, a privacy advocate for Comparitech.com, a services comparison site. “Multiple users — dozens, hundreds, and even thousands–are assigned a single IP address. This makes it nearly impossible to trace the activity of a single person in the pool.”
As an added bonus, a VPN allows you to effectively change your location with the click of a button. So if you’re in New York but you want your browser to think you’re in London, you can easily do that.
If you’re serious about eliminating your digital trail, you might also consider switching to the Tor Browser. Tor is a network of volunteer-operated servers that helps improve your privacy and security on the Internet. It works by creating a series of virtual tunnels rather than making a direct connection, which allows you to connect to places online without making a direct connection.
“Think of Tor surfing as taking a flight with stopovers instead of a nonstop,” explains S. Adam Rizzieri, the director of digital marketing for SevenTablets.com, a developer of mobile apps. “The traveler is your internet activity, which is comprised of packets of information. In a direct flight, the traveler — your packet of information — goes from Point A to B and the originating flight is clear. In Tor browsing, you have layovers. You still get to Point B, but your point of origin is cloaked by layovers at Points C and D.”
And as you might expect, it does make the browsing experience a little slower. But no one will know who you are.
You can also scramble your message securely before sending it, which protects your identity and the information.
“If attackers can’t decipher or read any of the emails, their efforts are largely stymied and the owner of the email address maintains strong privacy and anonymity when it comes to their information being protected,” says Bill Bullock, the CEO of SecureMyEmail, which offers an encrypted email product.
There are hundreds of encryption products, far too many to mention in a single story. But they’re fairly easy to use and often cost little or nothing. For example, a service like Virtu, which is a simple extension to your Chrome browser, offers military-grade encryption, allows you to control forwarding, permits you to take a message back and even expire an email.
But many of today’s encryption solutions are cumbersome to use, forcing the recipient to download software before they can read your message.
Maybe it’s worth pausing for a moment to ask how we got to this place. How did all of our personal information get carelessly strewn across the internet? While there are many reasons for why companies seem to know so much about us, and why we know comparatively little about them, one explanation seems inescapable: consumers collectively assigned almost no value to their privacy for too long.
And here we are.
In a world without secrets, these steps can ensure that you’ll keep a few more of yours. Checking your privacy settings, switching browsers, using a VPN and adding encryption can certainly help.
“But there’s only one surefire way to be invisible online,” says Ed Brancheau, the chief executive of the digital marketing agency Goozleology. “Don’t go online.”