Online Privacy Protection Tips

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(Mark Huffman @ ConsumerAffairs) If you're feeling a bit creeped out by the Internet these days, you aren't alone. A survey of U.S. Internet users found that nearly 75% admit to being worried about the quantity of personal information about them available online. What's more, they say they don't trust social media sites to keep their contact information, buying habits and political beliefs confidential.

When you break down the data compiled by Rad Campaign, Lincoln Park Strategies, and Craig Newmark of craigconnects, you find this mistrust and concern about privacy rises as Americans get older.

People 65 and older expressed their concern at roughly twice the rate of poll respondents under 35. They are also the consumers who feel most strongly that privacy laws need to be strengthened.

"The data shows very clearly that Americans feel manipulated and exposed by the websites they frequent," said Allyson Kapin, co-Founder of Rad Campaign, an organization pushing political advocacy and social change. "That may not stop them from using Facebook and Twitter, or other websites, but they are clearly calling for more safeguards so their personal data does not get sold or used for targeted marketing purposes so easily."

The survey shows consumers tend to be most concerned about tracking cookies. These bits of data are responsible for the fact that, once you search for something on Amazon, for example, Amazon ads for that item tend to pop up on web sites you subsequently visit.

In fact, most cookies are fairly benign, compared to other threats, and simply a way for a web site to remember you when you return to the site – not requiring you to sign in again, for example. There are plenty of more serious privacy issues to be concerned about.

When you unknowingly download a program that gathers information – or even takes control on some of your device's functions – that's a big problem. The Department of Homeland Security breaks these intruders down to four similar, yet different threats – viruses, worms, Trojan horses and spyware.

A virus is activated when you click on something you shouldn't. Worms are more insidious, exploiting vulnerabilities on your computer without you doing anything.

A Trojan horse claims to be one thing but is really another. For example, it might present itself as software to protect your privacy, but then collect information about you and distribute it. Spyware shows up when you download a “free” application. It sends information about your activities to a third party.

What to do
To protect yourself from these threats, keep your anti-virus software up to date and don't visit websites you don't trust. Avoid downloading “free” apps unless they are from trusted sources and don't click on links in email, especially email from a spammer.

A major no-no is doing your online banking or checking email in an airport or coffee shop, using public Wi-Fi. An unsecured connection allows others in the public place, with the help of simple software tools, to monitor your activity.

If you have to check email or other sensitive data in a public place, connect to the Internet through a secure line, such as the “hot spot” feature on your smartphone.

There are also a number of tools that can protect your anonymity on the Internet, such a using “tails,” a live operating system that you can start on almost any computer from a DVD, USB stick, or SD card. It aims at preserving your privacy and anonymity.

The Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) has compiled this list of other technology tools to protect your privacy.

But the biggest thing consumers can do, sponsors of the privacy poll suggest, is to be much more careful about what they sign up for – starting with actually reading the terms of service (TOS).

"On one hand, Americans are quite concerned about their online privacy, but on the other hand the majority of Americans are using websites and social media platforms without reading very much of the TOS," said Stefan Hankin, Founder of polling firm Lincoln Park Strategies. "That's a problem."

And it goes without saying that, if you are concerned about your privacy, be circumspect about the information and photographs you post on social media sites. It's easy to get caught up in the moment but remember, the Internet is forever. Once it's out there, it's out there.