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How to keep your privacy online

There's multiple ways you can lose your privacy online - through your operating system, through your web browser, your search engine, your email provider, pirated software and malware, and your phone. Let's look at each of those in turn.

By default, Windows 10 sends a lot of data about your web browsing, computer usage, even keystrokes and your voice, back to Microsoft headquarters. Of course, they say they're not doing anything with it other than improving their product, but after the "5-eyes" scandal showed Microsoft, Apple, Google and many other companies were sharing sensitive user data with the CIA, it's hard to know whether you can trust them.

The best way to avoid all that is to run Linux instead, but pragmatically most of us can't do that for reasons ranging from technical difficulty through to needing to use Windows-only programs or hardware. The 2nd-best way is to download a free program called 'O&O ShutUp10' and apply the "recommended settings". This will turn off the bulk of Microsoft's spying and "phoning home".

Your web browser does some similar things, and again it depends how much you trust Google (who makes Chrome) or Microsoft (who makes Edge and Internet Explorer) as to how that makes you feel. One solution here is to use Firefox, which is more robust than Chrome/Internet Explorer/Edge and is developed by a non-profit (Mozilla) with internet security and privacy as it's core goals.

Your search engine also tracks your searches, if you're using any of the main ones like Google or Bing. But DuckDuckGo, a silly-named-but-fully-functional search engine, doesn't track you and has a similar interface. If you're using a free email service like Gmail or Outlook, those will scan your emails and send (supposedly) anonymous data back to their parent companies. You can pay for a private email address instead from services such as ProtonMail, or use the email address supplied by your internet service provider.

Using pirated software or being infected by malware can also cause your computer to transmit data to third parties. Even some non-pirated 'free software' online can contain "PUA"s or "Potentially-Unwanted-Programs", which can harvest user data and send it through to analytical firms. These are malware, though not as malicious as the viruses which tend to piggyback on pirated software.

If you're using pirated software, please stop doing so; there are plenty of legitimately-free open-source variants of the many different types of software out there, ranging from office suites (Libreoffice) through to 3D-modelling programs (Blender). It's not worth getting a virus just to use something you're more familiar with. If you suspect you may have some "PUA"s or other malware in your system, a decent antivirus program such as Eset Internet Security can typically sort those out.

None of the above even covers how your phone tracks your movements and reports them back to Google/Apple! That's scarier still. The simplest way to avoid this to turn off "location" awareness on your phone until you need it (ie. for google maps and the like). You'll notice I haven't gone into the likes of Facebook, Twitter etc. The reason for this is that you essentially sign away your rights when you sign up. There are a few things you can do to increase your privacy with third parties and strangers (do a web search for "increase facebook privacy" for more details), but you can't hide the data from the companies themselves. You may think you're sharing your data with just friends and family, but it goes beyond that.

There's a price we pay for a lot of these free things online, and it's not always obvious what that is. A lot of the time we just have to trust that nothing too bad will come of it - but sometimes, it's worth thinking, do I really want Mark Zuckerberg knowing what I wrote to my nephew on Christmas day?

- Matt Bentley, computer expert at Bentley Home PC Support.
Email info@homepcsupport.co.nz or phone 0211348576.

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