Our digital selves are intricate assemblages of data ranging from our name and email address to our everyday habits and deep-seated desires. It is interwoven with fine threads of minuscule or seemingly irrelevant private information that is diligently collected and used by various online businesses, such as our login time on a website or how we interact with an app. Usually, we trade this info unknowingly by agreeing to the terms and conditions of the services we want to use. In fact, even our friends participate in creating our digital selves while allowing apps to access their contacts. With this data, predictions about us are generated and used to convince us, for example, of buying something or voting for someone. Further applications can be vast and unforeseen, and potentially very harmful.
In the not-yet fully regulated online world, it can seem as if we don't have much power over this process or that keeping control of the traces of our digital self is overly complicated. Big tech companies are, indeed, always a few steps ahead. But there are ways to find out where our data is being stored and minimize its future collection while still accessing online services.
To manage our digital self successfully, we first need to ask:
- What data are we generating?
- How will it be shared and used?
- How can its access be restricted for our safety and benefit?
There is a myriad of simple steps and valuable tools that target these questions and boost our digital privacy while using apps and browsers. For example, you can:
- Turn off location sharing in each app.
- Restrict inessential access in each app’s settings (access to contacts, microphone, camera, photos, etc.).
- Delete random, unuseful apps.
- Log onto your social media profiles through a browser instead of apps.
- 'Degooglise' — limit the use of Google products as well as their consumption of your data.
- Replace invasive apps, tools, and services with non-invasive alternatives: browsers such as Firefox and Brave, search engines such as DuckDuckGo and Startpage, email services such as ProtonMail and Posteo, messaging apps such as Signal and Wire, videoconferencing apps such as Jitsi Meet and BigBlueButton, and maps such as OpenStreetMap and OsmAnd.
- Download a privacy-oriented app, such as Exodus Privacy (detects other apps' trackers and shows permissions they require from the users) or TrackerControl (allows users to manage tracking and the hidden data collection in their apps).
- Install browser add-ons and extensions that boost your online privacy, such as Privacy Badger (blocks ads and trackers in your browser), PixelBlock (blocks trackers in your emails), ClearURLs (removes trackers from URLs in your browser and inbox), and HTTPS Everywhere (encrypts your communication with websites).
- Remove any private information from your social media, reduce publicly available data, and untag yourself and others.
- Separate your accounts from each other, i.e., don't use one account to sign up for another.
- Delete your virtual valuables such as scans of your documents and bank details from your online accounts and devices.
- Make all of your passwords stronger and store them in a password manager such as Firefox Lockwise or KeePassXC.
- Share these tips with your family and friends.
Thousands of data breaches yearly (such as the recent Facebook leak of 500+ million users’ private information) and other privacy scandals (such as the WhatsApp privacy update earlier this year) put us constantly at risk in direct and indirect ways, some of which we might not even be able to comprehend yet. Implementing even just a few of the above tips into your online setup and behavior will already make a huge difference in terms of keeping your digital self secure.
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