By Thomas G. Stephens Jr., CPA, CITP, CGMA

When the topic of personal privacy is discussed, many individuals become alarmed when they learn how much information has been collected about them – and how it is being used. Further, most are startled to find out the sheer volume of information that has been collected about them and might be available for sale in on-line marketplaces. If you are concerned about personal privacy and want to get back in control of your own information, here are five easy-to-implement ideas.

Carefully Consider Your Choice of Browsers and Browser Settings

From a privacy perspective, your choice of a web browser matters and the settings you establish within the browser also matter. Some of today’s more popular browsers are “advertiser-friendly” and potentially share data with advertisers that you might not wish to have shared. For example, by many estimates Google’s Chrome browser is the most commonly used browser today, with approximately 80% market share. Yet Chrome scores poorly in many privacy categories because of issues such as automatically signing you in to the browser (so it can track your activities) and tracking your location. Two lesser-known browsers – Mozilla Firefox and Tor Browser – score much higher in most privacy categories.

You should also carefully consider your browser’s privacy settings. Many browsers provide controls that allow you to disable pop-up ads, browse in a “private” mode and block cookies, among other options. You should learn what settings you can adjust and make the necessary changes so you can control your personal privacy to the degree at which you are comfortable.

Utilize a Virtual Private Network

Those who are truly concerned about personal privacy should always utilize a Virtual Private Network and connect through the VPN to the internet. A VPN provides a secure, encrypted tunnel between your computer and the otherwise unencrypted internet. By connecting through a VPN, you can browse in virtual anonymity so that not even your Internet Service Provider will know where you have visited or what you have done there. Note, however, that if you have signed in to a browser or have logged in to an account at an online merchant, you can be tracked at that level, even if you are using a VPN. Many good choices exist for personal VPN solutions, including Nord VPN, CyberGhost and Private Internet Access; most personal VPNs cost less than $4 per month.

Monitor Your Accounts, Including Google and Amazon

As you are no doubt aware, many companies track what you do while you are browsing the internet or even a particular site. Pay attention to each web site’s Privacy Policy and learn what information these companies collect, how they use it and whether they sell or share information collected about you with third parties. For example, you can read Google’s privacy policy by clicking here and you can read Amazon’s by clicking here.

Most companies allow you to view and self-manage the information being collected about you. To illustrate, if you are concerned about Amazon’s personalized advertisements, you can click here to manage those preferences as they relate to you. Likewise, if you want to see what your Alexa-powered devices have on file about you, click here to access Amazon’s Alexa privacy page and then choose Review Voice History. You can see everything Google has on file about you by clicking here to download all that information. However, take notice that downloading the information does not delete it; if you want to delete it, Google has separate processes.

Flush Cookies from Your Computer

Cookies are small files that are often stored on your computer when you browse the internet. Companies place cookies on your computer so that they can track items such as what sites you visit and what you look at on each site. They also use cookies to memorize and automate logins to specific sites. Obviously, cookies can collect – and report – a tremendous amount of information about you. If that makes you nervous, you can delete cookies from your computer and you can also block new cookies from being stored on your computer. Although the processes for both these tasks are quite simple, they do vary based on your browser. There are many websites where you can learn more about cookies, how you can delete them and how you can manage them, but try to keep up to date on browser-specific instructions for dealing with cookies.

Inspect and Cleanse Your Public Profiles

Finally, you should understand that many companies are building massive databases that collect publicly available information about you from sources such as birth records, real estate transactions, marriage licenses, divorce filings and court records. Examples of some of the companies who are collecting this information and creating profiles about you include Radaris, USA People Search, and PrivateEye.com. The challenge is that when attempting to synthesize information from multiple data sources to create a profile about a given individual, mistakes can be made, resulting in an inaccurate profile about that individual. Further, many individuals are uncomfortable with the volume of information about them being available for sale to virtually anyone who wants to buy it. Lifewire published in January 2019 an outstanding article on this topic entitled How to Remove Your Personal Information From the Internet. In this article, the author provides detailed, step-by-step instructions on how you can opt out of many of these sites, making it more difficult for others to gain access to this data.

Be Safe, Be Vigilant

Our increasingly connected lifestyles mean that we potentially expose more of our personal information every day to the point that our personal privacy may be compromised. Unplugging our devices and never plugging them back in is not a viable option for protecting personal privacy. Fortunately, it does not have to be. By taking the steps outlined above, we can get back in control of our personal information. Remember, this will not be a one-time project. You will need to commit to an on-going process that protects your personal privacy every day.

Tommy Stephens is a shareholder in K2 Enterprises, where he develops and presents continuing professional education programs to accounting, financial and other business professionals across North America. You may reach him at tommy@k2e.com.