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Methods to Leave Less Digital Traces Online

Posted by Ismael Jawad on 29 05 2020.

Today’s online world is one of tracking a user’s browsing history and monitoring online user behavior. Sometimes, you end up with useful tracking cookies on your device, which help you get news alerts or help you avoid registration windows every time you open an online service. In most of the cases, however, you get tracking cookies from all sorts of third parties eager to know everything about your online activities. Now, we all know that your privacy should be protected. So, the question is: Are there ways to reduce the size of your digital footprints? What steps should you take to do so? Find out in this comprehensive guide. 

The Tracks You Leave

You might not be aware of it, but while you’re browsing the web, you’re leaving digital traces everywhere. Any page you land on might be storing your information. Not to mention that any comment you leave can be tracked back by anyone in the future.

You might be asking: How do we leave digital footprints? It comes in different ways:

Online Shopping

Don’t you ever wonder where a certain advertisement is coming from? Websites don’t just guess what you like; they use your previous clicks to determine what you showed interest in.

These websites often embed cookies in your system, tracking your every move in the process. With these, they can determine whether you dropped by before or not, and serve you with relevant advertisements.

Social Media

Social Media websites and apps work in the same way. However, their tracking mechanisms have advanced over time. In fact, websites like Facebook rely on your clicks and activities.

We’re referring to the videos you watch, the likes you give, and the comments you submit. All of the aforementioned activities are considered to be digital footprints.

They may rely on you just clicking “OK” to whatever terms they are introducing, without reading them. Almost 91% of Americans consent to terms that pop up without going through them first.

A Saved Email

Saving your email address on your browser is indeed convenient. It eases your browsing activities and helps you continue where you left off if you change your device.

Websites can easily take advantage of that. They may build a list of all the devices you’ve used your accounts on to visit their sites. Don’t mistake this for “total intrusion.” It might be to help secure your accounts and provide you with better service.

However, in the end, it’s very important to comprehend the information being collected about your habits.

Your Digital Footprint – Owning Your Privacy

Managing your online privacy and security settings is becoming a messy thing. This is despite the adoption of legislation such as the European Union’sGeneral Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and the California Consumer Protection Act (CCPA).

These are complex regulations, and companies still try to take every advantage of the stipulations and collect as much personal data as possible. In many cases, it is easier to simply erase your browsing traces than cope with the challenges of selecting the proper tracking settings for each and every site you visit.

Thankfully, you have a number of relatively reliable methods to both obscure your online behavior and leave fewer digital traces on the devices you use online.

Incognito Mode in Browsers

All popular Internet browsers now have a feature that allows for more private browsing. It doesn’t really matter if it is called “Incognito Mode” in Chrome, “Private Mode” in Firefox and Safari, or “InPrivate” in Edge, the concept is one and the same – leaving less digital footprints compared to ‘normal’ browsing.

In theory, these modes for private browsing do not keep track of your online searches, do not remember data entered into online forms, and do not keep your browsing history.

But this is in theory. When you are logged into a service site, including popular services such as Amazon, Google, or Facebook, your browser will still keep track of your online activities even in private mode.

You can do nothing about that except to use one browser for logging to sites and another for browsing and searching the web in private mode and without logging into any service. This method for browsing in private is called browser compartmentalization.

Even though private mode in browsers keeps fewer records about your online activities, it still does not prevent your Internet service provider (ISP) or your employer from seeing which websites you visit in private mode.

That is why you also need a tool such as a virtual private network (VPN) to make your connection private, not only your local browsing history.

Using a VPN

Private browser modes only keep fewer records of your online activities on your local machine. A Virtual Private Network, on the other hand, is totally something else. 

A VPN service makes the very connections between you and your destination website private by encrypting them. This way, your ISP or other third parties can see that you’re connected to a VPN server. What they can’t see, though, are the sites you connect to next.

The VPN client encrypts all your traffic to the VPN server, which in turn connects to the destination website while there are also VPNs that can hide the very fact you are using a VPN connection.

Here, however, you face the same catch related to using a website while logged in. The site will track your activities for the period you are using the service as a logged-in user.

Nonetheless, the combination of a VPN that encrypts your online traffic and the use of private mode preventing websites from keeping browsing history and storing cookies is a powerful tool for the average user to secure an acceptable level on online privacy.

You should adopt a VPN solution from a trusted service provider, though. Avoid free ones at all costs. Don’t be tempted by their free service; it’ll do you more harm than good when it comes to privacy. Make sure you opt for a premium service with excellent security features such as BulletVPN.

Regularly Clear Browsing Data and History

All of the popular browsers give you an option to manually clear your browsing data and history. In addition, you can select what data to keep and what data to delete from your local history.

All major browsers such as Chrome, Firefox, and Edge enable you to select the period for which you want to delete browsing history, which allows you to erase browsing data for a period ranging from the last hour to your entire history.

When clearing your browsing history you also may decide to delete only the cookies stored on your device, as there is a good chance to have a number of tracking cookies among them. It is even better to prevent your browser from accepting third-party cookies at all, by turning this option off in your browser’s settings.

In the case of Google Chrome, you may also want to think twice before you browse while logged in to your Google account as Chrome can record your online activities in the cloud, not only on your local machine, while signed in with Google.

Use Anonymization Tools

The above methods might not meet your privacy requirements. It’s highly possible. If that’s the case, you can still use a platform like Tor for maximum privacy and anonymity online.

The Tor browser in fact works as if you are using a VPN service. However, unlike the average VPN service, your traffic travels through at least two servers, or hops, before reaching your destination.

Please note that there are VPNs that use more than one server as well). This makes it very hard for someone to know what sites and online services you are visiting or tracking data packets back to you.

Those who are behind the Tor browser have also made a step further by developing an operating system called Tails, or The Amnesiac Incognito Live System, which starts as if it has never been launched before any time you boot it from a USB stick.

The concept of Tails revolves around the Tor concept for complete anonymity and privacy, and thus the operating system does not keep any records from your previous sessions.

Of course, it is not very convenient to boot the Tails OS from USB every time you need complete privacy but it pays off if you really need that privacy online. In addition, Tails OS comes with a built-in office suite and other common business apps, so you can use it in your usual work routine.

Delete Personal Information

As we mentioned, a lot of websites collect data from everything you do online. After that, the might sell it to third parties in order to bombard you with relative advertisements.

You have to delete yourself from these websites if you wish to cover your digital tracks. You certainly can look yourself up on these sites and then deal with them individually to get your name removed.

However, there are certain tools to do the job for you. Some websites might require some extra work to remove you from their database. This can be a bit frustrating.

The tools we spoke can navigate through all those extra chores the websites are demanding. DeleteMe is one of the tools you can use. It’ll even revisit these sites every few months to make sure that your name/account is still removed.

Furthermore, if there’s a certain type of information you want to be removed, you can simply ask Google. Some websites can be very stubborn and refuse to delete your data. That’s where you can send Google a legal request to have it removed.

Digital Footprints - Google Request
This process may take some time, but at least it’s an option. We never know whether it’ll be successful or not, but having information out in the open is something to dread.

If someone posted your personal information on one of these sites, Google might be your only way to fix it. It’s definitely your best recourse if you’re in such a vulnerable situation.

Concluding Words

Accomplishing complete online privacy is almost impossible for the average user, but achieving an acceptable level of private browsing is within your grasp if you make regular use of a combination of the methods described above.

You should also exercise your rights under the data protection laws that are in force in specific regions. For instance, under the California Consumer Protection Act, you can tell any website not to sell your data to third parties while the GDPR forces website owners to inform you what data they collect about you and give you a choice to opt-out from at least some tracking options.

You can also take advantage of the Right to be Forgotten regulations, enabling you to ask a service provider to delete your personal data or data about you provided by third parties.

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