Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

December 11, 2017

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Private matters

Some common sense and only slightly paranoid tips to prevent you from revealing everything online

Should you be worried about protecting your privacy on the Internet? Depends on who you ask. The titans of social media and search, Facebook and Google, say the more information you share, the better off you will be. On the other hand, the guardians of privacy, like the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), say that you should be very wary indeed about doling out your personal information.

For the average person, who just wants to surf the Net, play a few games, pay a few bills, and perhaps post a cat photo or two, the situation can be worrying. How much info is too much info? Where should you draw the line?

The companies who are mining your data aren’t much help. Privacy settings are confusing, and privacy policies are mind-numbing. The chance that you read (let alone understood) a company’s privacy policy before checking the box saying that you did is slim.

Of course, no one wants to be an Internet shut-in, never going online. But neither do you want to live in a house where all the doors and windows are open all the time, and there is a camera in every room recording your every move, and also a spy drone equipped with a camera that follows you whenever you leave the house, recording where you go, what you buy and who you meet. What to do?

A little paranoia never hurts

The answer, it would seem, is to enact a personal privacy policy that mixes common sense with a touch of paranoia. First, though, let’s establish who it is that you want to protect yourself from when you are surfing the Net.

Obviously, there are the outright thieves, who are looking to steal your identity and/or your money. You definitely don’t want to give them the keys to the store.

There are the advertisers and the companies that provide data to the advertisers. How much do you want them to know about you? Would you tell a salesman you’ve never met, who is trying to sell you a product you have never heard of, intimate personal details? And what if they use your data unscrupulously, or sell it, or lose it, or it gets stolen from them?

Then there is the government, as well as the police. Usually they are on your side — right? — but should they be able to check up on you whenever the urge strikes them, without a warrant or probable cause? And what if they weren’t on your side?

And, of course, there is your boss at the hospital, the other MDs you work with or your staff. Most likely you don’t want them to see you dancing a jig while wearing a lampshade last Friday night, let alone Friday night five years ago.

With that in mind, here are some basic steps you can take to give yourself a modicum of privacy, protect yourself from possible danger, and still enjoy most of what the Internet has to offer.

HxwcanIr3m3mb3rThis*?!

Use a strong password, which usually has at least 12 to 15 characters, upper and lower case letters and some symbols. You can use a password generator to make sure it actually is random (most humans can’t create a truly random password).

Once you have a crazy looking password — actually, lots of crazy-looking passwords, since you should never use the same password twice — you have to remember them. Unless you are a genius, this is not going to be possible. And since you shouldn’t let your web browser remember them, as that has security risks, you will need to write them down. Standard thinking used to be that you shouldn’t do this, but that opinion is changing; after all, the only way they can be stolen is if an actual human breaks into your house and finds your password book. Which, of course, you will have hidden.

Alternatively, you could use a cloud-based password manager like LastPass.com, although that suffered a small security “breach” in May 2011. Ultimately, if you can’t bear to have dozens of crazy passwords, at least make them all different. What you definitely don’t want to do is have one or two weak passwords for everything.

Always logout

At the end of your session, remember to sign out, especially on public networks or computers. Especially when you are doing anything involving money. But even if you’re not, it is a good habit to get into, and that includes Facebook, whatever email programs you use, and Google, which will track your every move when you are signed in. Do the same for your smartphone, and try to remember to routinely use the password lock.

Clear your cache

Again, a good habit to get into, if only to stop someone — for example, your children, or perhaps your spouse, or your colleagues at the clinic — from seeing in great detail everywhere you have been on the Net. Not that you have been anywhere embarrassing, of course.

Crumble your cookies

So-called Internet "cookies" are tiny pieces of code that all websites store on your computer. They make the Net go round, personalizing websites just for you. They also are how companies track you, following your every move. To be more private, delete them regularly.

Don’t worry, they’ll come back, unless you tell your browser to stop accepting them altogether or switch your browser to private mode, or "porn mode," as it is sometimes called. That may be a bit much for most people, though unless you really love seeing targeted ads, you should set your browser to not accept third-party cookies (the default setting in most browsers allows them).

Know the policy

Unless you opt out of using these two sites altogether, this is where you will be sharing most of your information. So you may as well acquaint yourself with their privacy settings, as tricky, annoying and ever-changing as they can be.

Space does not permit me to offer you a guide through the maze of options, but I can direct you to a good site that will take you through the steps, almost making it fun. Go to Priveazy.com and click on Protect Your Accounts. There you will find easy-to-follow privacy walk-throughs for Facebook, Google, Hotmail, LinkedIn, Twitter, YouTube and more.

For Facebook, for example, you’ll see how to turn on secure browsing and stop third parties from getting your data. You’ll also learn how to manage your apps, which in particular can be dodgy, since the app may be scheming to do even more things with your data than Facebook. Google is a bigger kettle of fishiness, since anything you share with Google it will share with nearly all the services it owns, including YouTube, Gmail, Google+ and Picasa. So unless you accept Google’s promise to “do no evil,” you may want to clear — or disable — your Google Web History, turn off the Ad Profiling and, in Google+, the social networking site, make sure the disturbing “facial recognition” feature is turned off. Same goes for Facebook's auto-tag feature which uses facial recognition to suggest names in photos friends take of you.

You are here

Geo-location allows smartphones and apps to follow you wherever you go, which can be fun for you and your friends, as well as anyone stalking you. If you don’t know what geo-location is, or rarely use it, you should turn off the location services altogether. Otherwise, select who you want to follow you on a per-app basis.

Go deep

Okay, you have taken these measures. Are you now feeling more secure, more… private? Wait, there’s more. Don’t put your real birthday on places like Facebook, or if you must, don’t put the year. Use throwaway email addresses (mailinator.com, guerrillamail.com) to sign up for non-essential services. Be very careful with your photos (learn how to remove hidden Exif data, which can reveal where the pic was taken and more) and what photos you are tagged in.

Getting a taste for stealth? Delve more heavily into the privacy concept and start using free proxies (like the easy-to-remember hidemyass.com) or TOR (The Onion Router), an anonymity network that will send you diving into the Deep Web, a strange land on which search engines do not report.

Or, conversely, don’t worry at all. Be as connected as you want to be, a true citizen of the Web 2.0 world. You will by no means be alone, and in fact, quite a few experts say that attempts to protect your privacy, and stories like this, are more of a placebo than a panacea. The cows have left the barn, there is no point in closing the doors. In other words, Internet privacy is a goner. But better semi-safe than sorry.

This article was accurate when it was published. Please confirm rates and details directly with the companies in question.

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