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Are you concerned about your online activities being disclosed to third parties? When a record of your online activities is created, it can be used without your consent. Your record can be used to figure out how much money can be made from you by analyzing any of your online moves. The more you use the internet, the better of a profile of you can be created, and such profile can be used to predict your future moves.
As you will see below, browsers and internet service providers disclose in their privacy policies that they do collect information about your online activities and that they do share some of your records to third parties. If you need to know how these third parties use your information, you probably need to check if they also have privacy policies, assuming you can identify those third parties.
Learning how to protect your data privacy can be tricky. Your browser history can be stolen and can be used without your consent. In many cases, you may not even know your private information has been disclosed. You will soon know about two such incidents.
You can prevent your online activities from being disclosed without your consent. One way to keep your online data secure is to avoid using the internet altogether. Another way is to use a virtual private network from a service provider. This service can help you solve the problem of how to hide your IP address, which use servers to encrypt your online visits.
Why you need a VPN
What happens when you visit the web
When you ask for a website, your request goes to your internet service provider that, in turn, fetches the website and sends it to your computer [more]. More specifically, you use a browser (such as Edge, Mozilla, and Chrome) that sends the request and receives and translates the result into data you can understand, such as text, images, and sound [more]. Your browser and your internet service provider (ISP) have a history of all the websites you visit.
Someone can see all the websites you have visited just by looking at your web history from your browser. The same is true if anyone has access to the web history stored by your internet service provider.
When your online activities are collected and shared
Here are some examples of your online activity being shared with third parties:
In May 2021, T-Mobile announced it would share its customers’ online activity with third parties for advertising purposes. Its customers’ consent is the default, but it gives its customers these options if they refuse to participate or want to have some control over how their information is used:
- Customers can choose which method T-Mobile can use to communicate marketing-related information to them: the methods are emailing, direct messaging, text messaging, and phone calling.
- Customers can opt out of advertising and tracking.
- Customers can request to see what information T-Mobile has about them and to delete such information.
- Customers can explicitly ask T-Mobile to not sell their information to third parties.
Some of the data T-Mobile collects about its customers are their IP addresses, visited websites, text messages, biometrics, audios, and locations.
Xfinity collects its customers’ personal information such as their names and addresses and collects information when they use the services offered by the company such as IP addresses, audio recordings, and websites visited.
In 2019, a leak called Dataspii affected millions of browsers. The leak occurred as a result of downloading extensions for Chrome and Firefox browsers. Web histories recorded by these browsers were leaked and sold to a company that, in turn, sold access to individuals. Some of the data leaked were:
- home and business surveillance videos
- patients’ medical records, including their names
- tax returns
- vehicle identification numbers
- online photos
- credit card information
- Zoom meetings
The data leaked were from individuals, companies, and governmental agencies, and as many as 4 million browsers were affected. You can find more about this leak by going here and here.
The Avast Report
In November 2020, cybersecurity specialists discovered that at least 28 extensions for Google Chrome and Microsoft Edge browsers were infected with malware. About 3 millions devices were affected. The malware can redirect these browser users to websites they have not requested before directing them to their requested websites. The malware can also collect users’ information, such as the websites visited, their IP addresses, email addresses, and dates of birth.
These extensions were used for Instagram, video downloading, YouTube, The New York Times, and so on. Some of these extensions are Direct Message for Instagram, Universal Video Downloader, Spotify Music Downloader, and The New York Times News. You can find more information about this incident here or here.
UC Browser is a web browser that can be used to access the web. Here are some of the features of this browser:
- it optimizes cellular traffic and compresses data;
- it helps users block ads on pages;
- it allows its users to play videos in the background;
- it allows its users to visit the web without leaving any trace by using its Incognito Mode.
However, it has been reported that UC Browser users’ web histories and IP addresses have been recorded even if they were in Incognito Mode; you can find more about this development by reading this story.
Using a virtual private network (VPN)
Knowing how to hide your IP address to avoid being bombarded by ads is one step to protect your privacy online, and using a virtual private network is one of the best ways to do that. Many companies offer virtual private network services. Before we tell you about one such company, we will tell you what a VPN is and how it works.
When you send a request through a virtual private network, it goes through a server, where your request is encrypted; then your request is sent through a tunnel that is inaccessible to unauthorized agents. When your request reached its destination, the recipient cannot tell the request comes from your computer because your IP address has been changed during the encryption process.
Let’s get into some details. You can access a virtual private network through a VPN service, for which you need to create credentials, such as a username and password. When you log in to that VPN service, a VPN server will check your account for access. The VPN server is your gateway to the virtual private network. Then the server will use a VPN protocol to encrypt your outbound requests and your inbound results.
A VPN protocol is a set of rules that dictate how your data is encrypted and decrypted by the servers and how your data is sent through the tunnel. There are several VPN protocols, including:
- Proprietary protocols
Your VPN service provider may use more than one protocol and may give you the option to choose a protocol that works best for you. Also, some of your VPN service providers may have their proprietary protocols.
You can access a virtual private network with your personal computer (PC) or mobile phone. You still need an internet service provider to reach the VPN service provider. Then, once you are logged in, your internet service provider cannot track you. Companies that offer some of the best VPN service for PCs and mobile phones have a no-log policy, meaning they do not save your browsing data.
As we explained before, your web history is recorded by your browser and your internet service provider. Once you access the internet, you are assigned an IP address that can be used to know your location and identity; a website you visit can also have a record of your IP address. Thus, when you directly access the internet, all of your activities can be traced back to you. That is why, for example, advertisers can infer your preferences and then show you ads that they think you may be interested in. For instance, when you look up that iPhone, they know about that, and ads about iPhones and related products may follow you wherever you go on the web for some time.
Knowing how to protect your data privacy online can take some time; using a VPN can be the first step. A VPN server keeps you anonymous on the web by assigning a different IP address to your device and by encrypting your requests. Because you have a different IP address, your web visits cannot be tied to you, and because your request is encrypted, its content may not be deciphered if it is intercepted, making your online visits secure.
If you were wondering about how to get a VPN, it is as simple as searching for a service provider and visit its website.
Learning how to hide your IP address can be tricky, and your internet service provider may not help with doing that. As mentioned above, internet service providers and browsers disclose in their privacy policies what information from your devices they collect and how they use that information.
Furthermore, your online records can be hacked, disclosing information about you that was meant to be private, and you may be unable to erase or hide these records forever.
One reason internet service providers collect your online information is to share it with third parties that have an interest in such information. For example, advertisers may need to understand a market before they launch a product or offer a service, so they may need to gather as much information as possible about their targeted audience for analysis and inferences.
In the case of a leak, the motive may be more obscure. During a leak, information that is considered to be private, such as someone’s social security number and medical records, can be made available to third parties. As we mentioned earlier, one motive for a leak can be monetary gain; data made available in such case rarely are disclosed to anyone therefore may be valuable to third parties. In fact, in the Dataspii incident, the leaked data were put up for sale.
One step you can take to protect your privacy online is to use a virtual private network that assigns a new IP address to your device, which is not tied to your identity and geographic location, and that encrypts your online requests, making it harder for unauthorized third parties to know about your online activities.
Learning how to protect your data privacy may help prevent the disclosure of your information without your consent, and using a VPN can help. You can also use a VPN for malware protection. There are free and paid subscriptions, but free services can be unreliable.