In the last couple of years, online safety and privacy jumped into the public discourse, becoming major social and political issues. Cambridge Analytica threw fuel into the fire when tens of millions of user data scraped from Facebook was used to possibly influence the 2016 United States elections and the Brexit vote. Cambridge Analytica denied the accusations. However, both former employees, Christopher Wylie and Brittany Kaiser, whistle-blowed that this is precisely what the company has been doing by gathering enormous amounts of data and crafting sophisticated political manipulation methods to influence elections in numerous countries.

The scandal blew over the media with the journalist Carole Cadwalladr exposing the scheme in The Guardian. Facebook was involved. It came to light that user data in question was illegally scraped from the giant social network that is caught in user-data related scandals annually. In fact, it’s in the middle of one now. The Wired reports that 500 million user-data units again leaked from Facebook, “the data includes things like profile names, Facebook ID numbers, email addresses, and phone numbers.” The company is downplaying the issue that the data is a few years old, from 2019, but cybersecurity specialists comment that it doesn’t make too much of a difference. Most likely, some people are still using the same email, the one they used for a decade and will continue doing so. Just now, it became less safe and more prone to hack attacks and phishing attempts.

Online safety has been an issue for quite some time, but only after hundreds of millions of Internet users were affected directly, it became a public issue. Password management is still an issue, with a significant portion of the online population using “qwerty” and “password123” to secure their accounts, instead of relying on a password manager, which is one of the first steps towards online safety.

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So here are a few easy tips on how to protect online privacy until BigTech companies and social networks secure their infrastructures to stop leaking personally identifiable information.

Use a password manager. These days an average Internet user has at least a dozen of online accounts. And all of them are protected by passwords. Gone are the days when you had to remember a few passwords, one for email, one for forums, and that’s it. It was easy. But remembering dozens of passwords can get tricky, and what if there’s fifty of them? Furthermore, cybersecurity specialists advise using long, complex passwords, including upper and lower case letters, numbers, and symbols. It’s impossible to remember that, and that’s where password managers jump in. They secure all user passwords in a safely encrypted vault, which can be opened only via a master password. Instead of remembering dozens of passwords, one is enough to access the vault and retrieve the required one. Long and complex passwords are no longer an issue because there’s no need to memorize them.

Use additional encryption software. Encryption is one of the safety mechanisms of the Internet. Unencrypted information flows in plain text, and anyone with the proper equipment can spy on that. Doing banking operations without any online encryption may just as likely end in an emptied bank account because some hacker was spying on the network the operation happened and stole the banking details. But it’s not only cyber criminals; oppressive governments also spy on their citizens’ online activities and prosecute journalists that express their right to free speech. In turn, journalists turn to VPNs for privacy protection.

VPNs work by establishing a secure and encrypted tunnel between the user device and one of its servers and rerouting all online traffic through the chosen server. Additional encryption ensures that no one can spy on user-data, because it’s indecipherable. And by forwarding the data through an alternative server, a VPN prevents Internet Service Providers, or ISPs, from gathering user data. In countries with tight Internet control, ISPs tend to provide data to government institutions, and the outcomes may be harsh.

The Internet is definitely a place to be, and during the lockdown, there’s not much else to do. But it also proved to be an unsafe place to be, and until adequate cybersecurity measurements are in place, it’s an issue of personal responsibility. Using a password manager and a VPN are two easy ways to start protecting online privacy.

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