BARCELONA—I always start my online relationships with a lie. It goes something like this: I have read and understand the terms and conditions.
Chances are, you do the same thing. A recent survey found that 91 percent of us routinely agree to privacy policies, terms of service agreements and license agreements without ever reading a single word.
Hard to blame us, though. The documents are long and boring. And they stand between us and the service we want to access. Besides, internet companies like Amazon, Facebook, Google wouldn’t abuse the access we give them, right?
That’s wrong, of course, as we’re all coming to realize. Remember that intoxicating amazement we felt when we first reconnected with long-lost friends and relatives online? It’s given way to a nauseating sense of just how much they’ve taken from us in return.
Indeed, hardly a day goes by without some revelation of just how wide the online giants’ tentacles reach, how far-flung our personal data has spread, and what it’s being used to accomplish. Just in the past week alone:
If it feels like we’re reaching a breaking point, it’s because we are. And the industry is taking note. At MWC, the mobile industry’s flagship tradeshow held here last week, IBM released “Big Tech’s Privacy Crisis,” a survey that found 81 percent of consumers are more concerned with how companies use their data than they were just a year ago.
To help ease the growing privacy headwinds, Facebook last week told investors the “clear history” control CEO Mark Zuckerberg promised last May will launch later this year, even though the company acknowledged it will hurt its ability to target ads.
Online privacy – or “digital trust,” in industry parlance – emerged as one of the broader themes at MWC, sharing exhibit space and stage time with megatrends like artificial intelligence and 5G.
Like JedAI, for example, a new service from Tel Aviv-based Anagog, is helping companies target smartphone users without touching any personal information. And FigLeaf, a Silicon Valley-based startup, is now beta-testing a privacy dashboard that helps consumers control what personal information online sites see.
But you don’t have to wait for the industry to help. Here are three things you can do right now to help protect your online privacy:
Set up unique email addresses
You can make it harder for sites to connect the dots between, say, your Instagram account and your credit card or home mortgage if you log on with different email addresses, like firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.
That’s easy and inexpensive to set up. Web hosting sites like GoDaddy.com offer domain names on the cheap to lure new business. I just typed “spidersandsuch.com” into the search box, and it’s available for $2.99 for the first year. Spidersandsuch.us is even cheaper.
Once you own it, set up a single email address, like firstname.lastname@example.org, and make it a “catch-all” address. That way, anything not sent to an actual email address at spidersandsuch.com will land in your inbox. Now you’re free to make up a different email address for every online account. Just be sure to keep track.
Block your location with a VPN
Virtual private networks are great security tools, because they block others from peaking at data moving into and out of your smartphone or laptop. They’re also great for privacy, because they mask your location.
Once you hook up to a VPN, it appears from the other side that the VPN is your device. Most VPNs have many servers located around the world, so you can effectively control where apps and websites think you are. Here in Spain, Google search is in Spanish, and points first to local sites. But when I enable my VPN and select one of the servers in Phoenix, Google thinks I’m home. So it delivers results like I’m used to seeing.
I use NordVPN, but there are many options. NordVPN costs $11.95 a month, but the price drops dramatically if you commit to at least a year.
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Use a private search engine
It’s a simple concept, really: if you don’t want Google to know what you’re looking for, then use a private search engine. Best of all, most of them are free.
I use DuckDuckGo. Feel free to shop around for others. If you do, of course, you’ll have to search for them via the usual suspects.
But that’s OK. You should have no hesitation letting the big guys know that you’re looking elsewhere.
Mike Feibus is principal analyst at FeibusTech, a Scottsdale, Arizona, market strategy and analysis firm focusing on mobile ecosystems and client technologies. Reach him at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @MikeFeibus.
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