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Must-know privacy tips for Google, Facebook and other online services

Ian Paul | Oct. 28, 2013
Explore encryption, scrutinize your settings, and consider alternative services that are more discreet than the majors.

Recent headlines about shadowy government agencieshigh-profile hack attacks, and your face in Google ads drive home a crucial point: Your online privacy is best protected when you keep an iron grip on the information you're handing out. If your info is on a server somewhere, it's not truly yours.

So many core aspects of our lives have shifted to the cloud, mostly to our great benefit: Gmail and maintain our email archives. Dropbox and SkyDrive make your files available anywhere, anytime. Windows 8.1 searches include Bing results by default. Google Now dishes out the information you need before you even know you need it.

But every gain in convenience comes with a loss of control, and that loss of control all too often comes bundled with privacy or security woes.

You can take some simple precautions to minimize the amount of personal information that you have online. But before we get started, remember that this data checkup is about what you're comfortable with. You could follow all the tips in this post, tighten up on just a few of the practices mentioned below, or go even farther down the rabbit hole than the suggestions offered here. Digital privacy is not a zero-sum or a one-size-fits-all proposition. If nothing else, this article can help you make better decisions about the information you share with the services you love.

Giving Google the cold shoulder
When it comes to minimizing your digital footprint, we have to start with Google. Just imagine the dossier the company has on you: search history, sites you visit, Google Play purchases, location data from Android and Chrome and Maps, your Google Drive looks like a lot when it's all spelled out like that, doesn't it?

To its credit, Google takes data security seriously, receiving fairly good marks in the Electronic Frontier Foundation's annual "Who has your back?" survey. But Google also makes heavy in-house use of your data, a point that touched a nerve with announcements of the company's plans to use your real name and face in online advertising (not to mention Microsoft's "Scroogled" campaign).

Divorcing Google isn't a realistic option for most people, though, given its superior services and sheer ubiquity. Switching to Microsoft's services still leaves your information in the cloud. So what can you do if you want to reduce the amount of data you're sharing with either online monolith?

To start, you can keep Google from collecting and sharing your data as much as possible. Using your browser's private/incognito mode will erase tracking cookies, including Google's, when you close it. You can also tell Google to stop trailing you in your account's Web History page (at the expense of Google Now features) and take a minute to tweak your general Google privacy settings.


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