Security, Technology, Innovation

Securing Your Privacy Online

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Individual typing on a laptop with an translucent image of a security symbol on top.

The regular use of smartphones and various online platforms for professional and personal tasks makes it easy to share sensitive personal information constantly. According to Forbes, this sensitive information has a lucrative black market where passwords, credit card numbers, and other forms of personal data are hacked and sold.

Many users over the course of their life may have multiple accounts both active and dormant that could be manipulated as a hacker. There are also a number of data breaches that occur with major technology companies, banks, or retailers, where consumers have trusted a third party with the security of their data. When security risks exist both in the personal actions you take as a user as well as in the organizations you trust your data with, it can be challenging to feel safe online. But there are a few actions that users can take to make themselves less vulnerable to hackers and attacks on private data.


It’s common to have a set of passwords that you may recycle through different websites and online accounts. But, not having a strong and unique password for each online account you have is a risk and vulnerability. If a hacker is able to access one account using a certain password and that password then gives them access to others, that creates greater risk and vulnerability as a user. Forbes recommends the source 1Password that helps generate more safe and strong passwords. The Federal Trade Commission recommends using at least 10 to 12 characters when crafting a password and avoiding using the same password for many accounts. Additionally, the FTC recommends limiting how you share your password and storing them in a secure manner. For accounts that are particularly sensitive, it might be helpful to consider two-factor authentication.

Sharing Personal Information 

When so much of our lives are conducted and maintained through our smartphones and internet browsers, it becomes easy to share personal information on pretty much any website. Oftentimes, this is where hackers are able to take advantage of the average consumer, by accessing their information through a non-secure portal or website. The FTC recommends that when you are shopping on banking online, in particular, to stick to site that use encryption to protect your information as it travels from your computer or smartphone to their server. If you are trying to determine whether a website is encrypted, take a look at the https at the beginning of the web address.

Using a VPN (Virtual Private Network) 

In this advanced technological environment, users are rarely tied to a desk in an office. There is great flexibility to work remotely, in co-working spaces, or a public coffee shop. While the flexibility is great, it is important to consider the vulnerabilities that exist with using a public WiFi network. Business Insider explains that using a virtual private network is a good security practice when connected to a public WiFi network. It allows your data to stay encrypted when it is being transmitted over the WiFi network. Of course, be weary of the provider you use and save sensitive material and work for when you are on a completely secure network.

Avoid Suspicious Links or Messages 

 This might seem like an overtly obvious recommendation because of how many workplaces and organizations warn their employees of phishing scams and scam emails. But, it’s important to recognize that you can easily feel compelled to click a convincing link in a text message from what seems like a verifiable source or open an attachment from a fraudulent user who has managed to make their email address look like a legitimate one. Business Insider recommends never engaging in any website or email that looks suspicious and to never provide website sensitive information unless you can guarantee it’s authentic. If you see the little padlock on the far right-hand side next to the URL, that’s a helpful indication the site is safe.

Avoid or Delete Third-Party Account Connections 

 It is incredibly common to download an application for your smartphone or create a new account on a website that then prompts you to connect or create an account using a third-party connection such as Google, Twitter, or Facebook. There is nothing incorrect about using these third-party connections to log in, but it’s important to be aware of which apps and services are connected to your Facebook and Twitter accounts, for example. Gizmodo recommends keeping these connections to a minimum and to access your account and remove any that you are using. This helps block off possible paths a hacker may use to access your private information.

These recommendations are by no means a fool-proof method to avoid getting personal data stolen or having your online security compromised. But, for an average user on the internet, they are solid precautionary measures that can be taken to improve your safety online. As the nature of technology continues to change and more of our personal lives are accessible online, we have to remain cognizant of what we choose to share and what sources we choose to trust, along with the implications of those decisions.

About the Author: 

Anu Kumar is a graduate student in the Intercultural and International Communication Program in the School of International Service, at American University. She is currently a graduate assistant for Prof. Audrey Kurth Cronin, Director of CSINT.


*The views expressed here are strictly those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the Center or any other person or entity at American University.