January 28 is Data Privacy Day – an annual celebration of all things data protection and online privacy! It’s an opportunity for businesses and users to reexamine the importance of personal data and how best to protect it from prying eyes.
It’s not easy to safeguard our privacy online these days, for a variety of reasons. But it is worthwhile to try. And thankfully, more people and organizations these days are recognizing the value of privacy – not least thanks to the awareness and education projects like Data Privacy Day!
People care more about online privacy than ever before
More than 60% of the world’s population use the internet, according to data by Kepios. People spend a considerable part of their time on the web for everything from work to education to entertainment. With so much of our lives spent online, privacy and security are increasingly taking center stage in people’s minds. According to Cisco’s 2022 Data Privacy Benchmark Study, almost half of the users surveyed reported they try to protect their privacy by managing cookie preferences, using privacy screens, and more. The survey also found strong support for privacy laws worldwide, and increased concern from users about what companies do with their data.
Data Privacy Day is an opportunity to highlight these trends and to spread the word about good privacy and security practices. The date was selected as a commemoration of the January 28, 1981 signing of the Convention for the Protection of Individuals with Regard to Automatic Processing of Personal Data, or simply Convention 108. It is the first international treaty on data protection, and it paved the way for later legislation like the better-known GDPR.
Now, Data Privacy Day is celebrated across companies, educational institutions, and users all over the world.
The challenge for privacy
Protecting our online privacy is challenging because the internet is constructed in such a way that it is virtually impossible to not leave even the most minute traces of your browsing. In fact, without some of those tiny traces, basic web functionality would not be possible. The goal for the privacy-conscious user, then, should be to minimize the traces they leave behind them and to be aware of what kind of data they are putting out there in the first place.
Let’s go over some steps that everyone can take to be more private online.
Block those ads
Ads are a constant presence in today’s internet. Most of the time, they help pay for many of the services we can access for free. But some ad providers can use information about you such as the browser you’re on or your location, to serve you targeted advertising – or, to put it simply, ads that you’re more likely to be interested in. Most websites you visit will plant cookies in your device, which are used for a variety of purposes – from enabling basic functionality like the site appearing in your own language to tracking your usage across several sites or devices to gather more information about you.
If you don’t feel comfortable with your data being used in this way, ad blocking and tracker blocking software is where you start. Ad blocking stops ads from appearing during your browsing, while tracker blocking prevents websites from gathering sensitive data about you and your browsing habits. There are browser extensions you can install that help you do exactly that. If you’re browsing on Opera, you don’t even need to install anything else – you can turn on the built-in ad blocker and tracker blocker right from your browser settings!
Get your VPN on
Anything you do online is visible to someone. For example, your internet service provider (ISP) can see your online activity, such as what websites you visit. This is true anywhere you connect to the internet – through your school, work, coffee shop, hotel, airport, and so on. More worryingly, bad actors can piggyback onto a public network (like the WiFi at a coffee shop or a hotel) and intercept your activity, which can give them access to all kinds of sensitive information.
A good VPN can hide your traffic from ISPs and disguise your IP address and location so the websites you visit can’t see who you are and where you are visiting from. But keep in mind that there are other ways for websites to identify you, and a VPN does not guarantee you privacy all by itself.
You can find several different VPN services, depending on your needs. Make sure you choose a trustworthy VPN provider that offers a no-log service – which means the VPN does not collect data about your browsing. Opera offers a free no-log VPN that protects your browsing only within the Opera browser, and VPN Pro, a paid no-log VPN service that protects your entire device.
Encrypt all the things
Encryption technology protects data such as emails, private messages, and files by scrambling readable information and making it unreadable. This means that no one can read your data unless they are authorized to do so – for example, if they are the person you meant to send your email or instant message to, or if you yourself are trying to access your files on your hard drive or a cloud service.
Additionally, encryption can and should be applied when you connect to websites – by making sure TLS (Transport Layer Security) is enabled, you can be reasonably confident that the connection between your device and the website is encrypted. You can tell your connection is encrypted by watching for the little padlock icon next to your browser address bar.
Don’t forget to update your software
This should be self-evident, and yet many users don’t update their software in a timely manner. From your OS to your browser, no software is 100% safe from attacks and vulnerabilities. And vulnerabilities leave you and your data potentially exposed to attackers.
That’s what security patches and updates are for – developers issue those regularly to stay one step ahead of malicious actors and safeguard the software you use, or even to fix already existing and exploited problems. But it’s your responsibility to install updates immediately – so you can stay a step ahead too. You can stay informed about Opera’s updates here.
Beef up your passwords and use two-factor authentication
Strong passwords are the absolute minimum to prevent others from accessing your devices and online accounts. “Password123” is simply not up to the task these days – you need long, complicated passwords with a combination of letters, numbers, and special characters. You also need to not use the same password everywhere – if an attacker gets your password, this would essentially give them access to everything you use that password for.
A password manager is the easiest way to have strong protection without having to remember hundreds of passwords. Your browser will most likely have such a function built in (for example, Opera’s Password Manager, found in Settings) but many experts recommend using a paid, dedicated password manager service. That way, you only need to remember one really difficult password instead of several.
Two-factor authentication adds an extra step to your log-in process. Once you’ve entered your password to a website or service, you are asked for a second code, which is sent to you separately via text message or email, or obtained through an authenticator app. This way, even if an attacker manages to get your password, they still can’t log in to your accounts because they need the extra code. There are ways to steal this as well but they’re more complicated. Most online services and devices offer two-factor authentication these days, so make sure you turn it on wherever you can!
Change your behavior online
While there are several tools and ways to protect your privacy online, they’re only useful up to a point – you need to make some changes in your behavior online as well. For example, it’s certainly convenient to stay logged in to your favorite social network all the time. But this means that the website in question always knows who you are and what you’re looking at, even if your VPN is on. So when you end your browsing session, make sure to log out of any online services, and clear your browsing data like cache and cookies from your browser settings.
Similarly, if you’re installing third-party extensions and software in your device without being confident about their origin and functionality, all your tracker blocking and two-factor authentication efforts could be for naught. The first and last line in the battle for your privacy is you, the user!
The more you know
Finally, nothing beats staying informed. Do your research about the websites you visit and services you use – get familiar with their privacy policies (here’s ours) and understand how they use your data. Keep up with news about privacy laws in your country – if you live in Europe, for example, you’re most likely covered by some implementation of GDPR, but every country treats user privacy differently. Learn as much as you can about what happens to your data and what you can do about it. Knowledge is power!
This Data Privacy Day, and every day, be your own privacy champion. Stay safe out there!