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Keep your online information private

On the Grid

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Friday, Jan. 10, 2014, 12:01 a.m.
 

Let's be honest: Most of us prefer not to think about who watches what we do on the Internet. What's the harm, some may think, if someone's looking at my family pictures on Facebook?

Well, there may be a lot of harm. Do you want advertisers vacuuming up details from your family's social media accounts? How about a potential cyberthief cobbling together enough of your personal information to steal your identity?

And that's not to mention the other snoops, from the NSA on down, who might decide one of your Tweets or Facebook postings is “interesting.”

Scammers, hackers, marketers, spies and identity thieves — together, they could make anyone want to surf the Web privately. Here are a few ways to live in our digital world without staying up at night.

First of all, you need to keep your computer free of viruses — programs you inadvertently download that could share your information with hackers. AVG or avast! are good places to start for free antivirus protection. AdAware and Spybot Search & Destroy target adware and spyware.

Next, note that every major browser has an “incognito” or “private browsing” mode. That's one line of defense against advertisers that track where you go, or snoops who get on your computer.

Another tip: No matter what you do, you leave a lot of information behind on your computer. Your browser has a record of what you've been looking at and what you've downloaded. It keeps those “cookies” you've heard about.

Some cookies are useful, and some are troubling. A program like CCleaner, a well-reviewed cleaning program, will keep unwanted cookies and other junk off your computer.

Are you worried about someone snooping in your email? Not only does the technology exist, some companies already do it. Gmail users, for example, are used to seeing, say, dog-related ads next to their email window if they've been discussing pooches with a friend. That's done automatically and, to be fair, that's the price you pay for using Google's powerful email service for free.

To be as secure as possible against other prying eyes, try using a program called PGP — that's short for Pretty Good Privacy. If used correctly, the program should keep your email private from everything but government-level decryption. It does require some effort and the cooperation of friends and family.

Next step is to keep your Web browsing private. I told you how to keep it safe from advertisers and snoops with private browsing, but that won't stop dedicated hackers.

The best way to keep it safe from them is to use what is called a Web “proxy.” Tor is the most famous of these. With Tor, each site you visit is sent though a relay of servers. No one on either end of the connection can see what Web sites you're visiting.

You can also go with a private company that offers a so-called VPN, or virtual private network. These can run you $40 or $50 a year and require a bit of setup, as well, but can be useful in a lot of ways. They are very valuable for those of us who travel and are at the mercy of sometimes unsecure local Wi-Fi networks; they will keep your email and chats private with encrypted communication.

Email Kim Komando at techcomments@usatoday.com.

 

 
 


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