Carefree internet users are simply snacks for hungry marketers who will stop at almost nothing to expose the most intimate details of your life – for the sole purpose of selling you stuff.

Consider the full implications of this familiar phrase: “We collect information about your visit in order to personalize your shopping experience and serve you better.”

Even if you prefer a customized shopping experience on trusted sites, you should remember that other data-hungry retailers are peeking over your shoulder and can see your activity, too.

Users provide marketers (and cybercriminals) with vast amounts of information about their private lives. Search engines and social networking platforms are perhaps the biggest culprits. Each collects a vast amount of information by recording users’ clicks, carefully tracking which articles you read, which links you open, and which posts you share.

Imagine for a moment how uncomfortable you would feel if you were to browse, shop, or play on the internet with a room full of nosy people jostling for a position 24/7 to peek over your shoulder.

WHY SHOULD WE INSIST ON DIGITAL PRIVACY?

Free apps and services rely on a simple three-step business model. Firstly, the service provider will track and record every user action to build a complete user profile including age, interests, lifestyle, values, contacts, education, and more.

Secondly, they identify patterns such as shopping habits and lifestyle choices with which to predict your future behavior accurately. The next step is to sell your highly accurate user profile to marketers.

Marketers pay a premium for accurate information that allows them to zoom in on only those users who are most likely to buy their products or services.

Most of us strongly believe that we have nothing to hide. But if you ever have the occasion to use a people search service, you’ll realize how much personal information has made its way into the public domain. A data query on Nuwber or another – possibly unscrupulous – data aggregator can reveal shockingly accurate personal profiles of you and your loved ones.

Why feed the beast? Take these 6 simple steps to start limiting the damage and regain control over your personal information.

1. Use Tor for internet browsing

Your browser automatically releases information to every website you visit. Incognito mode does not prevent tracking, and most browser extensions likewise collect and sell your browsing data.

Tor stands for ‘The Onion Router’ after its multiple layers of security. Your data is bounced around a network of relays so that the websites you visit cannot identify you or pinpoint your physical location.

2. Use a (paid) VPN

Public Wi-Fi networks are hacker honeypots, as anyone on the same network can intercept your data traffic snoop on your traffic. Hackers often roam areas with public WiFi to intercept sensitive data like passwords or credit card data. Always use a VPN to protect yourself from man-in-the-middle attacks or snoopers.

It is perhaps even more important to use a VPN at home. It’s an excellent way to obfuscate your actions and browsing habits and will go a long way towards protecting you from the relentless surveillance when you use the internet. Visit the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s guide to help you choose a good VPN.

3. Choose your search engine carefully

Google is a free app. Therefore, you should take the same steps you use to protect yourself from Facebook or other service providers, to protect yourself from Google. No matter what browser you use, please take a few seconds to install Duck-Duck-Go as your default search engine. Your searches and queries will remain private and you’ll be putting a dent in their ubiquitous data harvesting practices.

4. Beef up your browser security

Most browsers offer do-not-track settings, but they cannot guarantee that any website will honor the request. It’s a good idea to use an additional, credible browser plug-in to add some protection. Ghostery is a popular choice, but the gold standard is Ublock Origin by Raymond Hill (not to be confused with UBlock).

Free apps and browser extensions usually harvest information to sell to marketers. Clear out the clutter, remove unused apps, and review the permissions of the ones you consider essential. Uninstall all browser extensions unless you rely on them for daily use.

Always check permission requests before you install a new app. Why would a weather app need access to your files, contacts, photos, and browsing history? Why should a simple card game need access to your camera, microphone, or geolocation?

5. Use a password manager to generate and manage secure passwords

A weak password is like closing your front door without locking it. Unfortunately, we all use a huge number of apps or accounts, and it is impossible to memorize complicated passwords for all of them, especially the ones we don’t use daily or weekly. Rather use a good password manager to generate passwords with a minimum of 12 characters for each of your service accounts.

However, since you need to grant a password manager app full access to your internet browsing, it’s best to remember that a free password manager might be gathering your data. It’s best to use a reliable paid app like Dashlane. Never use your Facebook or Google account details to log into websites or other online services.

6. Use a decoy e-mail address and phone number

Try not to share your main or “real” email address and phone number when you sign up for Internet services, online stores, or social networks.

Get an extra SIM card and create a special email address that you use for random or non-essential accounts or transactions. It will reduce the influx of spam in your main e-mail inbox, and stem the tide of robocalls on your phone.

SIX SMALL STEPS. BIG PROGRESS

It should be up to you to decide what info you want to share with your friends and family and to keep snoopers and strangers at a distance.

If you don’t like the idea of close scrutiny by hackers, advertisers, or bots, start protecting your online privacy today.