10 Simple Ways to Protect Your Web Privacy

Keep your personal information safe with these tips

Protecting your privacy offline is one thing, but as pervasive as the internet is, it's becoming harder and harder to stay private online.

Website forms need your name and phone number, your email address is used on dozens of sites, your search history is stored on your computer, and it's nearly impossible to keep your address private from a people search engine.

So how do you protect your privacy online while still enjoying what you're doing? Is it even possible to keep your privacy when so many websites and businesses deal with your personal details on the web?

Below are several tips you can use to keep your personal information personal and your private details to yourself only.

If privacy is important to you, learn how to stay hidden online for some more tips.

Don't Give out Too Much Information in Forms

Signup form example

If you can manage it, refrain from answering all of those questions on web forms. If there isn't a requirement to enter identifying information — like your middle name, physical address, employer, etc. — don't do it.

For the fields that you do need to enter something into, think twice about what you're typing. This is a good web safety tip because it minimizes the personal information that the website has on you. Should the site get hacked or the owner sell your data to another company, they won't have the personal information they're looking for.

One way to do this is to provide "fake" information. Instead of entering your real email address, use a disposable email account. If they ask for your phone number, feel free to enter an internet phone number.

In both of those situations, you're providing the information they're asking for so that they can get a hold of you if they need to, but so long as the address and number you use aren't actually tied to you, you don't have to worry about spam or someone learning your real contact details.

Clean up Your Search History

Search history in Google Chrome

Most web browsers keep track of every single website you type into the address bar. This web history should be periodically cleared out not only for privacy's sake (anyone can find it) but also to keep your computer running at top speed.

In most desktop web browsers, you can clear your web search history and website history via Ctrl+Shift+Del. Mobile browsers store this option in the settings. Just be sure that any options referring to your history are selected for removal.

Log out of Search Engine Accounts

Sign out button on Google Search

Some search engines require you to create an account and log in to access the full array of their services, including search results. In order to best protect your privacy, it's always a good idea to log out of your account after running your web searches.

When you sign off, you're ensuring that nobody else will be able to browse through the list of sites you were visiting. It's a bit like clearing your search history but it doesn't actually delete the information, which is something you might prefer if you want to access your history but don't want it visible to anyone else using that device.

Similarly, you might instead log out before you run the search. If you don't want the website storing a record of what you're looking for, sign off so that there isn't a trace of that search tied back to you. This is the best way to keep your search history private from companies that log it through user accounts.

Watch What You're Downloading

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Be extremely cautious when downloading anything (software, books, music, videos, etc.). This is a good idea for privacy advocates to avoid spyware which can be used for remote tracking, but it's also a great way to keep your computer from freezing up and malfunctioning.

Some programs include adware that will report your surfing habits back to a third-party company that will then use that information to send ads and unwanted emails.

Don't Share Private Information

Locked icon on laptop illustration

This is similar to the web form tip above. When dealing with a blog, message board, comments section, social media site...it doesn't matter: always be sure that what you're sharing is something you wouldn't mind sharing in real life.

Don't share information that could identify you in public, especially if you're a minor. Keep identifying details like usernames, passwords, first and last names, addresses, phone numbers, and maybe even most pictures, to yourself.

These details, if left online for anyone to see, can be used for all sorts of things, like to crack your email account password, find your physical address or other details, and track your location.

Use Caution on Social Media Sites

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Social networking sites like Facebook are extremely popular, and for good reason: they make it possible for people to connect with each other all over the world.

However, it's important that your privacy settings are set appropriately and that what you share on social networking sites wouldn't reveal anything of a personal or financial nature.

Everything from comments, profile details, and photos could compromise your privacy.

Watch out for Online Scams

Computer scam illustration

Feodora Chiosea / Getty Images

If it seems too good to be true, then it probably is, and this especially applies anything on the web. Emails promising free computers, links from friends that seem legit but lead to virus-laden websites, and all sorts of other web scams can make your online life quite unpleasant, not to mention add all sorts of nasty viruses to your computer.

Think carefully before following links, opening files, or watching videos sent to you by friends or organizations. Watch for signs that these might not be for real, which might include misspellings, lack of secure encryption (no HTTPS in the URL), and improper grammar.

Protect Your Computer and Mobile Devices

Secure and insecure phone screens illustration

Mark Garlick / Getty Images

Keeping your computer safe from harmful content on the web is simple with a few precautions, such as a firewall, appropriate updates to your existing software programs, and antivirus software. It's also important to know how to properly scan your computer for malware so there isn't something unsafe lurking around in the background as you're having fun on the web. 

Desktop devices aren't the only places privacy-stealing programs can exist. If you have a phone or tablet running third-party apps, consider using a virus scanner there, too. See our list of the best antivirus apps for Android.

Keep a Close Eye on Your Online Reputation

Mobile alert illustration

Oleksandr Hruts / Getty Images 

Have you ever Googled yourself? You might be surprised (or shocked!) to see what anyone can find out about you. Fortunately, you can keep a watchful eye on what the web digs up on you by signing up for alerts anytime your name, brand, address, email, etc. are mentioned.

If there's too much of your personal data online, feel free to remove what you can and then keep following the tips in this list to prevent further leaks.

Use Common Sense When Online

Light bulb sticky notes

Ian Hooton / Getty Images

This is pretty self-explanatory and sums up all of the above, but we're calling it out here as an important reminder: just think twice before you do anything on the web.

  • Avoid shady websites. If you'd be embarrassed to have your wife, husband, children, friend, employer, etc. see it, a privacy breach there would be even worse than on a "regular" site. This is a low-tech way to protect your web privacy, and yet, out of all the methods on this list, it might be the most effective.
  • Quit revealing so much information about yourself online or that data could end up in public records for anyone to search through.
  • Clean up your tracks if you leave information behind that you don't want other people to know. You have to practice being private in order to maintain privacy on the web.
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