Well, there may be a lot of harm. Do you want everyone in the world to see pictures of your kids? That you’re on a family camping trip and not at home? Do you want advertisers vacuuming up details from your family’s social-media accounts? How about a potential cyberthief cobbling together enough of your personal information to steal your identity?
And that’s not to mention the other snoops, from the NSA on down, who might decide one of your Tweets or Facebook postings is “interesting.”
Scammers, hackers, marketers, spies and identity thieves — together they could make anyone want to surf the Web privately. Here are a few ways to live in our digital world without staying up at night.
First of all, you need to keep your computer free of viruses — programs you inadvertently download that could share your information with hackers. AVG or avast! are good places to start for free antivirus protection. AdAware and Spybot Search & Destroy target adware and spyware.
Next, note that every major browser has an “incognito” or “private browsing” mode. That’s one line of defense against advertisers that track where you go, or snoops who get on your computer. In most browsers, Control + Shift + P will bring up a private browsing window. (In Chrome browsers, Control + Shift + N brings up the “incognito” window.)
Another tip: No matter what you do, you leave a lot of information behind on your computer. Your browser has a record of what you’ve been looking at and what you’ve downloaded. It also keeps those “cookies” you’ve heard about.
Some cookies are useful, and some are troubling. A program like CCleaner, a well-reviewed cleaning program, will keep unwanted cookies and other junk off your computer.
Are you worried about someone snooping in your email? Not only does the technology exist, some companies already do it. Gmail users, for example, are used to seeing, say, dog-related ads next to their email window if they’ve been discussing pooches with a friend. That’s done automatically and, to be fair, that’s the price you pay for using Google’s powerful email service for free.
To be as secure as possible against other prying eyes, try using a program called PGP – that’s short for Pretty Good Privacy. (The name is modest – if used correctly, the program should keep your email private from everything but government-level decryption.) It does require some effort and the cooperation of friends and family.
Next step is to keep your Web browsing private. I told you earlier how to keep it safe from advertisers and snoops with private browsing, but that won’t stop your Internet provider and dedicated hackers.
The best way to keep it safe from them is to use what is called a Web “proxy.” Tor is the most famous of these. With Tor, each site you visit is sent though a relay of volunteer servers. No one on either end of the connection can see what Web sites you’re visiting.
But you can also go with a private company that offers a so-called “VPN,” or virtual private network. These can run you $40 or $50 a year, and require a bit of setup, as well, but can be useful in a lot of ways.
Besides keeping your Web surfing private, a VPN lets you watch TV broadcasts in the U.S. while you’re traveling in other countries. But they are also very valuable for those of us who travel and are at the mercy of sometimes-unsecure local Wi-Fi networks; they will keep your email and chats private with encrypted communication.
Now, as we’ve seen from the recent revelations about the National Security Agency, a determined government agency can break many of these defenses. So, don’t think you can get away with anything illegal. But against many of the usual suspects – marketers, identity thieves and the like – these tips will make the Internet a much more secure place for you.