Here are some steps to take to make your digital life more private.
Get a VPN if you can afford one.
Stop using Google Maps
This article is intended to be an introduction to the concept of "Privacy" on the internet for those who aren't familiar with the concept and may not even be "tech-savvy". I'm going to cover some of the ways you are likely unknowingly giving away your privacy and outline a few action items you can take to fix them.
Want to cut to the chase? Click here for the TL;DR; version.
We're going to focus on 5 areas:
This topic is one of the most well documented and reported on issues, so I'll keep it brief. A simple browser search will yield a plethora of articles detailing how various browsers **cough* Chrome *cough* invade your privacy. Basically, there are ways websites track your activity across the internet and some browsers protect against it, while others don't *cough* Chrome *cough*. Additionally, your browser has the means to know everything that you do on the internet (what websites and pages you go to, what you click on, how long you're there, etc.), and that data can be stored and leveraged by whatever company owns that particular browser *cough* Google *cough**.
Really all you need to do is ditch your current browser for one thats more privacy focused
Action Item: Switch to a more privacy-focused internet browser like Firefox.
Simply put, Google Search makes money by selling your data. So it's in their best interest to collect and store every single scrap of data they can get their grubby little hands on. Not only that, but based on the profile that they build for you over time (based on the data they collect about you from various Google services), they create what's known as a "filter bubble" for you.
A filter bubble means that Google is not showing you objective search results for a specific query, but rather they are showing you the results they think you want to see. While a filter bubble isn't particularly important from a privacy perspective, it's still a quite important concept to understand. Let's take a practical example of what this could mean.
Let's say theirs a major election coming up, you want to first research the candidate affiliated with your party (George B. McClellan), and then the candidate affiliated with the party which opposes yours (Abraham Lincoln). The search for George B. McClellan is more likely to contain positive articles that someone of your perspective would be interested in, whereas the search for Abraham Lincoln is more likely to yield results that portray that candidate in a negative light.
In Psychology, this is called Confirmation Bias. Effectively, when you want to achieve a certain result or believe a certain thing, you search only for evidence that confirms it. Hopefully, we can agree that this is a very bad thing.
In contrast, DuckDuckGo does not track your search history, nor does it tailor results to you. Plus, it's available as a default search option on pretty much every major browser (including mobile browsers on your smartphone).
Action Item: Switch from Google to DuckDuckGo.
Your ISP, or internet provider (think Comcast), doesn't just make money off of you by charging you a monthly fee to be connected to the internet. Nope. They also track all the data they possibly can on your internet traffic and store it, then turn around and sell that data to other companies.
"How can this be?!?!", you wonder. "I always use HTTPS, and my network has a password. Shouldn't that mean that no one can spy on my internet traffic?"
Well, most of your traffic is private. However, there's still a lot of information that isn't. Like what websites and you're visiting and when. All of this gets stored on a profile that your ISP builds for you (more specifically for the IP Address they assigned to you).
To make matters worse, your ISP isn't your only problem. Without getting into to much detail, every time you go to a website, your computer first asks a computer called a "DNS server" where that website exists. The companies who own these computers collect all the data they can on these requests, file it away, and then sell it.
You can stop all this from happening by purchasing something called a VPN service. Whenever your VPN is enabled it wraps all of your internet traffic in an additional layer of protection which makes it impossible for your ISP to spy on you. Some examples of companies that provide such services are NordVPN and ExpressVPN.
It's important to note that there are some tradoffs that come with VPN's. There are some services that will attempt to detect if you're using a VPN and deny you service (e.g. not being able to stream videos on your favorite streaming platform). Of course you can always temporarily turn your VPN off when using such services. Lastly, they will make your internet a tiny bit slower. Bottom line though, before you purchase a VPN you should do a little homework to make sure that it's going to work well for you.
If you can't afford a VPN service (and you're moderately technical), you can simply start using 22.214.171.124 or 126.96.36.199 as your DNS Server.
Action Item: Get a VPN like Nord or Express.
Assuming you use your smartphone as your camera, it's important to realize that when you take a photo that photo contains more than just a picture of you flexing in front of a mirror. It also contains metadata about the photo. Most significantly the time the photo was taken, and where the photo was taken (in the form of GPS coordinates).
This means that when you post that cute pic of you eating some delish Gnocchi at that fab restaurant to your blog or other such websites/services, someone can download that photo, and then find exactly where and when you took it.
The simplest way to prevent this issue is to simply disable location services on the camera app (iOS). However, you can also leave it on, and iOS provides utilities to remove metadata when sharing photos.
Action Item: Disable location services in the camera app.
If you're not using an email provider that focuses on privacy (like Gmail), then your email service provider is effectively reading all your emails. "Read" here doesn't mean that a human being is physically reading your emails (although that is within the realm of possibility). There are computer programs that are parsing the text of your emails and extracting information from them that is then used however the service provider sees fit (e.g. marketing to you or selling it to other companies).
Something else that's worth taking into consideration is how readily these service providers will give your data to the government at their request. In the post-Snowden era, it's important to understand that mass surveillance programs are violating the privacy of law-abiding citizens. Most citizens are largely uninterested in such topics and haven't done much research or considered the nuance of the arguments at play. If you fall into that camp, then I'd urge you that it's your civic responsibility to become educated on the matter.
Action Item: Switch to a privacy-focused email provider like Zoho or Protonmail.