At a glance
Updated 14 April 2023
Is privacy making a comeback? Back in 2010, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg famously said the expectation of privacy was no longer a “social norm” – and he has proved to be largely right, as more and more people have shared more of their daily lives online, particularly on social media.
However, as part of its “commitment to transparency and privacy”, Microsoft published details about what data Windows 10 (Windows 11 is the current version, although Microsoft still supports Windows 10) collects about your system.
Microsoft’s campaign appears to be in response to privacy concerns about its latest operating system. As Terry Myerson, former executive vice president of the company’s Windows and Devices Group, said: “Many of you have asked for more control over your data, a greater understanding of how data is collected … ”
But is it possible to take control of our data?
Microsoft, Apple and Google are increasingly linking their operating systems to their web services. That has brought benefits such as free online storage, but it also allows the companies to collect enormous amounts of data about us – as do Facebook and other social networks.
Of course, sometimes it makes sense to give away some aspects of our privacy, such as sharing our location with Google in exchange for being able to use Google Maps.
Nevertheless, there are measures you can take to gain some level of control over your digital privacy.
It should be noted that the list below ("13 ways to improve your privacy") is in addition to recommended security measures such as using antivirus software.
Going off the grid
It may not be possible to go completely off grid, but there are some extreme measures that can help you get pretty close:
Use an alternative operating system
This isn’t really feasible for Mac and smartphone users – apart from some secure versions of Android such as CopperheadOS (which is only compatible with Google Nexus and Pixel phones).
However, for many Windows users, Linux is a viable alternative. There are several security-focused Linux versions available, including Tails.
Delete your social media accounts
Privacy-focused services, such as Diaspora, are an alternative for closed groups, although you’ll have to convince friends and colleagues to make the move, too.
Use Tor or a virtual private network (VPN)
To hide your internet protocol (IP) address and your location so no one can track your online activities, you’ll need to use either Tor or a VPN.
Tor is a free, anonymising online network that’s available as a browser or an Android app called Orbot. Its main downside is it can be quite slow, which is why many people choose to pay for a VPN service such as NordVPN.
13 ways to improve your privacy
- Get to know the privacy settings on all your devices. That’s not always straightforward, but there are numerous third-party tools that aim to make this easier, including O&O ShutUp10 for Windows 10).
- Get to know social networks’ privacy settings. Check them fairly regularly, too, because Facebook and other social media channels change the settings from time to time.
- Use alternative online services. If you don’t want Microsoft, Google or Apple knowing everything about you, there are plenty of alternatives to your device’s default online services. Some third-party apps are designed for the privacy conscious, including SpiderOak for online storage, Kolab for email and Signal for encrypted messaging.
- Use a password manager. Using a tool such as LastPass is a must as it allows you to use a different (and strong) password for every online service. Where available, use two-factor authentication such as a password and a fingerprint scan or SMS.
- Enable remote wipe. Android Device Manager, iOS’s Find My iPhone and third-party apps such as Avast Anti-Theft will ensure your data remains safe if your device is lost or stolen.
- Use disk encryption. Android, iOS, Mac OS and Windows all offer full disk encryption as extra protection if your device is lost or stolen. Unfortunately, Microsoft’s BitLocker is only available on Windows 10 Pro (and now Windows 11), but there are alternatives such as VeraCrypt.
- Use cloud encryption. Note that disk encryption doesn’t necessarily protect data synced to online services such as Dropbox. For that, you’ll need to use a cloud encryption service such as Boxcryptor. (While Boxcryptor is still supporting current users it’s in the process of joining up with Dropbox.)
- Check Google’s My Activity. This online tool gives you some level of control over what the tech giant knows about you via your Google account.
- Check app permissions on Android or iOS. Third-party apps have been known to access various smartphone features such as the camera, microphone or location, when they may not necessarily need that function.
- Don’t browse when logged in. Google can track your web browsing if you’re logged into its service. One way around this is to use a privacy-focused browser such as Firefox for general browsing and another browser – or even a Windows/Linux/Mac app like WebCatalog)– for web services including Gmail and Office 365.
- Prevent browser tracking. To block tracking code in web pages and ads, you’ll need a tool such as Ghostery or a full ad blocker such as AdBlock Plus. Both are available as browser add-ins and mobile browsers.
- Use an alternative search engine. Unlike Google and Bing, DuckDuckGo doesn’t record your searches or leak them to third parties.
- Disable digital assistants. The likes of Siri, Google Now and Cortana by their nature have to collect a lot of information about you to be effective.