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(Photo: Getty Images)
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TechApril 1, 2020

Spending a lot more time online? Here are five ways to do so safely and privately

(Photo: Getty Images)
(Photo: Getty Images)

In these testing times, we’re all spending a fair amount of time on our phones and computers. Here are some simple ways to make that time safer for yourself.

As if we weren’t all indoors on our phones enough already, Covid-19 is ensuring that our screen time is going to be through the roof. That’s usually a bad thing, but when physical distancing and self-isolation are being encouraged by the government, who are we to resist the call of technology to keep us amused? Plus, it’s quite likely that you’re now working from home, meaning you may be using your personal laptop or desktop to do a whole lot more than usual. 

As we’re all spending more time on our phones and computers it’s important to consider if your online activity is as secure and private as you’d like. Social media, online accounts, passwords, Google services – you’re probably far less secure in your internet use than you might hope.

It’s worth pointing out that staying safe and staying anonymous online are two slightly different things. If you want to use Google services, then it’s pretty hard to hide your identity as everything has to be linked to your personal profile. For one, Google scans (securely, it says) your Gmail inbox in order to keep it free and serve you ads. 

Staying safe online is easier. Staying anonymous requires a bit more effort, but it’s doable. 

Here are five pretty easy ways to make sure you stay safe and private during these testing times and beyond. Three are free while two might cost you a little each month but are worth it for the benefits they bring. 

1. Be sensible 

The first and most important line of defence is yourself. It might be obvious, but if there’s a pop-up saying you’ve won an iPhone 11, then don’t click on it. Pop-ups are less common in the age of sophisticated browsers, but they still pose a threat to your online security and personal data.

Also be vigilant with email, phone calls and texts. It’s common for scammers to pose as your bank or phone provider and ask you for your account or credit card details. Actual banks and legitimate services will never do this, so simply don’t ever provide your card details on a phone call, text or email. 

If it looks dodgy or too good to be true, then it probably is. Trust your gut and if you see a scam, report it here

2. Use a private browser and/or web extension

Whether you use Chrome, Safari, Firefox or Microsoft Edge, they all have a private or incognito browser mode to allow you to surf safer. It doesn’t hide your activity from your ISP (internet service provider) but it also doesn’t log sites on your device’s browsing history, and it won’t save your logins. 

These browser modes also stop websites using cookies to track your visits, so using one is good practice if you don’t want websites tracking your identity all over the web. They’re a no-brainer when using a public computer.

Browser extensions such as the excellent AdBlock Plus to curb ads and tracking (though do please consider unblocking the sites whose free-to-read journalism or other content relies on advertising to stay afloat) and Mozilla’s Facebook Container are good options too. The latter works with Mozilla’s Firefox browser and keeps Facebook out of the rest of your online activity by not letting it track you via logins and plugins, thus shielding your extended online data from Zuckerberg. 

If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is (Photo: Getty Images)

3. Turn on your computer’s firewall

A firewall is a type of network security system. It looks at all your incoming and outgoing internet traffic and blocks any suspicious activity based on a set of security rules. They are good at alerting you to things like phishing scams.

If you use a Windows PC with Windows 10 it has a built-in firewall that you really should have switched on. Here’s how to check if it’s on. And if it’s not, just follow these simple steps

If you use a Mac, here’s how to check your computer’s firewall is on. You can pay for more sophisticated firewalls as part of a paid-for security software package if you’re worried, but the free built-in ones are the best place to start. 

4. Use a password manager

When it comes to passwords you’re probably doing one of two things (possibly both). One is to use your browser to save them, and the second is to use the same password for everything. Call me a bore but both are bad ideas. If you write all your passwords in a notebook then for goodness sake, read on. 

Using a browser to store your passwords means surrendering that data to the provider. So if all your passwords are saved in Chrome then they’re on Google’s databases somewhere. That’s a fairly safe place for them to be, but if your internet traffic is intercepted then someone could easily see them as they know where to look.

Using the same password for everything is a bad idea because all someone needs are your email address and the password for one service. Then they can login to all your services.

A password manager is a piece of inexpensive software that saves all your logins securely. I use and pay for 1Password and it’s excellent. It saves all my passwords across iPhone, Android, Windows and Mac and means if I go to another device to sign in, it will autofill the email and password fields after I type my master password, use my fingerprint or use Face ID on iPhone. Lastpass is another good option.

Granted it’s a slight faff to set up, but once done all you have to remember is one master password. The software can generate incredibly complex and unguessable passwords and all your data is stored a lot more securely than whatever it is you’re doing now.

5. Use a VPN

VPN stands for virtual private network and it’s less intimidating and complicated than it sounds. A VPN is simple piece of software that masks your IP (internet protocol) address in order to disassociate your online browsing history with the unique number that identifies your internet connection, letting you use the internet anonymously. 

Using a VPN also keeps you safe from hackers potentially intercepting your internet traffic. It’s a good idea to use a VPN when using open public wifi in places like the library or the airport. 

You can also use a VPN to access geo-blocked services like Netflix libraries from other countries. Bear in mind that while this is not technically illegal, it does violate Netflix’s terms of service, so proceed with caution. 

My advice is don’t use a free VPN – there’s always a catch. I’ve personally tested and used ExpressVPN and NordVPN, two reputable VPN providers with low monthly costs. Once subscribed you can install their apps on your computer, phone and tablet for online peace of mind.

Keep going!