Online security. What we should know, and how to protect our personal data and browsing habits

You would be surprised how much the Internet knows about you and how valuable this information can be for certain subjects. Advertising companies track your online behavior in order to sell you brands…

Online security. What we should know, and how to protect our personal data and browsing habits
Online security. What we should know, and how to protect our personal data and browsing habits

Our life on the Internet is more transparent than most people can imagine, and most daily online activities are monitored and stored for future inspection (if necessary). But still, when I talk to somebody about online security and protection of one’s online activities, I often hear something like “Yes, but anyway I have nothing to hide…” We talked to Daniel Markuson, Digital Privacy Expert at NordVPN, and asked him to help us understand the most important privacy issues on the Internet, and how to protect our personal data, browsing habits, and info we do not even know we are sharing with third parties. And ‘cyber criminals’ are not necessarily the most dangerous in the list of threats…

What would you say to somebody who thinks he/she has nothing to hide and for this reason does not need ‘protection’?
Let’s be clear: there is very little privacy on the Internet. And while you think you are not interesting enough to be monitored or spied on – well, you actually are. From Facebook status updates to email snooping and smartphone location tracking – you are closely watched every day.

You would be surprised how much the Internet knows about you and how valuable this information can be for certain subjects. Advertising companies track your online behavior in order to sell you brands, while service providers – Google, Facebook and others – want to know your preferences so they can offer you more accurate solutions.

Finally, we all want to hide our traffic from cyber criminals looking for any opportunity to get at our data. If you use online banking, send emails with sensitive personal information, store important files on your devices, or use the internet in any way at all – you need protection. Privacy matters even if you have nothing to hide. Unfortunately, no magic tool can make you completely anonymous when browsing the web, but getting a VPN – virtual private network – is something that can help you to stay private and safe in the digital world.

Smartphones and privacy. We all know how powerful and intrusive of our daily privacy smartphones are. With a GPS, cameras on both sides, microphone and who knows what other functions and sensors, not to mention what most apps can do with these functions… A smartphone is a Trojan Horse in all respects, but it is becoming a tool most people cannot live without anymore. What are your advices in order to secure (if possible) as much as possible a smartphone, what to do, and what not to do in order to grant at least the basic level of privacy even when using a smartphone?
People store very personal information, such as passwords, private messages, photos, videos, contacts, banking details and other files on their smartphones. With so much sensitive information residing on your smartphone, there is a chance that it knows more about you than your best friend does. That’s why your pocket-sized device is a dream target for cyber bad guys. The good news are that there are few basic security steps you can follow, to make your device more secure.

  • First thing, avoid using public Wi-Fi, as they are super easy to compromise and yet very few people think twice before connecting to them. If you don’t fancy the idea of someone snooping on your online activities, a reliable VPN can help you.
  • Secondly, download apps only from the official app stores and pay attention to app permissions. If a flashlight app requires access to your contacts, it’s an alarming signal of malicious intents.
  • Another important thing for smartphone security – stop disclosing your location. Some apps may use your location to track you and create your data profile without you even knowing.
  • And finally, never skip updates. It’s the shortest tip yet the key one! Updates bring you not only new features but bug fixes and patches for security vulnerabilities as well.

IoT, also known as Internet of Things, Amazon Alexa, Siri… Google Assistant… and the list could be longer. What to expect, under the privacy and security point of view, when these ‘smart objects’ will be everywhere… talking to each other and to who knows who via a 5G network?
The IoT has the potential to make our lives easier and more efficient than ever before. Since the IoT industry is in its infancy, such devices are a perfect storm of cybersecurity vulnerability, as most manufacturers are ignoring the security side. In a rush to get IoT devices into the market, security takes a backseat compared to functionality and appearance.
The other big issue is that many IoT devices are shipped with default logins. If a device even comes with instructions on how to change the password, most users don’t follow them. And finally, IoT devices are excellent malware hosts.

Because their security is so weak, IoT devices can often be used to host and run rudimentary malware. They’re tremendously useful in DDoS attacks, which require swarms of devices running simple bots to swamp their targets.

Even if your IoT device is totally secure, which it probably isn’t, there’s another huge risk it might expose you to – privacy violations. These devices are already notorious for harvesting data for their manufacturers. This data is ostensibly only used to improve their devices, but few companies will be able to resist the price that detailed user data could fetch.

So what you should do – always read manuals, update devices regularly and create strong passwords for your IoT devices. Finally, you can set a VPN on your home router. This may be inconvenient if you want to control them remotely, but the encryption will block hackers.

What is exactly a VPN, and how does it protect its users?
When you use a VPN – virtual private network – it redirects all the data you send and receive through a special VPN server. This change has two main benefits: it encrypts all the data, and it replaces your IP address. The end result: it gets much more difficult to track what you do online, steal your passwords, or block you from the content you want. You’re safer from your internet service provider, government snoopers, pesky advertisers, identity thieves, and hackers.

We could compare your usual online browsing to simple old-school letters. If we imagine that information travels online in letters and envelopes, then using a VPN is like shipping your mail in an armored truck. Not only does it ensure that nobody can steal or read your mail, it also hides where you sent your mail from. People or websites you talk to will still be able to reach you, but their envelopes will have to travel to the armored truck first. Only then will the mail make its way to you.

What are the potential risks of using a free VPN service?
If Google’s growing data empire and the huge Cambridge Analytica scandal at Facebook haven’t given you a clue, let me spell it out for you: when a for-profit company provides you with a service for free, that’s because they are using you to make money. You are the product, not the customer. Don’t forget this rule if you’re weighing the benefits of a free VPN vs. a paid one.

How a free VPN makes money depends on their sense of ethics, but none of the potential solutions bode well for your online security. The most common methods involve carefully logging your traffic and then injecting ads into whatever you do online or simply selling that data to third parties. Less scrupulous free VPNs have even sold their users’ bandwidth to corporations and hackers or used their access to deliver malware. Free VPNs also usually offer fewer features and don’t work as well as premium VPNs do.

They usually support less staff and can’t release frequent updates to stay on top of the latest cybersecurity trends. Premium paid VPNs answer to customers, not advertisers, so they have a stronger motivation to deliver a product that works.

What should we look for, when choosing a VPN service, in order to really protect our computers, smartphones, online activities?
Choosing a reliable VPN service that suits your individual requirements is quite difficult, especially if you have no VPN experience in the first place. The technology may seem complicated and the selection of providers dizzying. Naturally, to find out which services may offer the best internet protection, users usually turn to various internet sources or comparison sites with in-depth reviews.

However, there are few main aspects you should look into before choosing your VPN provider. First and most important one, if a VPN has strict no-logs policy. Some VPN providers might be required by law to collect data on their users’ internet activity, and this depends on the country where they operate. For example, countries that belong to the so-called 14 Eyes or 5 Eyes often practice online surveillance.

When choosing a VPN, check in how many countries does it have servers and if it works on different platforms. A well-established VPN will offer Android, Windows, iOS, Mac, Linux desktop and mobile apps, TV app and browser extensions. Checking if it is a real VPN or proxy and what level of encryption does it offer might be useful as well. The strongest current protocols are OpenVPN and IKEv2/IPsec.

We would like to thank Daniel Markuson
Digital Privacy Expert at NordVPN

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