Just like in the offline world, you leave a virtual paper trail behind you on the web. Information about the websites you’ve visited and information you’ve entered on those sites is captured and used by many parties – from web advertisers to social media platforms (for instance, when Facebook recommends people you may know) to hackers.
So what should you do to keep your online history out of dangerous hands?
One way is to use encryption—essentially a secret code—to send your messages. In the security world, encryption is the process of encoding messages (or information) in such a way that eavesdroppers or hackers cannot read it, and only authorized parties have access. Encryption works very much like the invented language or coded alphabet that many kids devise to share secrets with close friends. “Authorized parties,” meaning the sender and the intended recipient, can read the encrypted message, but to hackers and other unauthorized parties an encrypted message looks like gibberish.
A very simple encryption example might look like this:
Original: What do you want to eat for lunch?
Encrypted: Xibu ep zpv xbou up fbu gps mvodi?
In the “encrypted” or coded version of this message, each letter of the original sentence is replaced by the following letter in the alphabet: the letter “A” in the original is replaced with “B” in the encrypted version, an original “T” becomes “U”, and so on.
There are free services for consumer like EncryptFree, that allow you to encrypt the messages you’re sending and receiving from your personal device or laptop. EncryptFree is a free service with a very simple mission behind it: allowing users to keep private messages from being read by anyone other than the intended recipient.
To use the site, you simply create a password, enter your message into the text box (either by typing it or copying and pasting), and hit the “encrypt” button. When the encrypt button is pressed, the message will be garbled using a highly secure process. Then, you simply communicate the password you used to the intended receiver, who can then use it to log in and convert your message back to its original (human-readable) form.
There other tools available for consumers similar to EncryptFree that protect your user data from emails to social media. For example:
- Encipher.it can be used directly from your web browser to send messages more securely;
- Secretbook is a Google Chrome extension, which can be used to hide messages in Facebook pictures. Secretbook requires both the sender and the recipient to download and use the extension. Users can then hide a 136-word message in a photo before posting the image on Facebook.
Of course, no Internet encryption method is guaranteed forever — keystrokes, screengrabs and a variety of foul-play can easily sidestep some forms of security. Here are a few additional ways you can protect yourself from hack-happy criminals.
- Use a private or anonymous browser (for instance, Google Chrome offers “incognito mode”) so that browser history isn’t stored and the sites you visit can’t track your activities across the web
- Know your permissions settings—if you use Facebook or Twitter to log in to a third-party application, be aware of what access the application has to your personal data. Even if an application can’t access your password, it might be able to send messages or updates on your behalf, collect information about your friends, and see the messages you send and receive.
- The best way to keep your personal information secure is not to put it on the web to begin with, so if you don’t want other people to see your photos, your home address, or where you like to eat lunch, don’t put that information on your social profiles—even if you’ve configured your settings to keep it hidden.
It’s not always possible to thwart cybercriminals, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t make life more difficult for those who seek to intrude on your privacy. Encryption may not keep you from being noticed, but it can help to keep prying eyes out of your business.
Are you currently using any of the encryption tools mentioned in this post? Let us know in the comments below!