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5 Easy Ways to Protect Yourself From Web Hackers and Eavesdroppers

The internet may be looking at, listening to your online activities

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In the past several years, almost everyone has grown even more dependent on electronic devices to stay in touch, get work done and remain entertained.

Older adults bank, pay bills and shop online; view and share recipes; and get news pushed to laptops, smartphones, smart speakers and tablets. But with the increased reliance on tech comes a greater risk of being tracked, analyzed, marketed to or even scammed.

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Whether your internet service provider, a search engine or social media giants are blatantly mining your data or cybercriminals are out to defraud you through computer virusesphishing scams or ransomware, your privacy, security and sanity are at stake.

The good news is you don’t need to be Bill Gates to fight back. Consider these simple ways to stop cybersnoopers in their tracks.

1. Use a VPN

Many of us choose a private or incognito mode when opening a web browser because it deletes your history and trackable cookies after your surfing session. But be aware your online activity is still visible during your time online. This information can be tracked, saved and shared or sold to third parties.

While private browsing prevents information from being automatically stored on your device, everything you do is still visible to your internet service provider. Websites you visit can see your IP address, which gives them your approximate geographical whereabouts and identifies your device.

To avoid that, install a reputable virtual private network (VPN), which provides anonymity when browsing online. Popular VPN options include ExpressVPN, NordVPN and ProtonVPN.

Only about a quarter of U.S. internet users ages 16 to 64 used a VPN for at least some of their online activity, fewer than that who were 55 to 64, according to an October 2023 report

An up-to-date security suite should also help you keep away from prying eyes.

2. Create strong passwords, pass phrases

Remember to have a strong password for all your accounts. Make it at least seven characters long and a combination of letters, numbers and symbols. You’ll get bonus points for adding upper- and lowercase letters.

Never use the same password for all your online activity. If a site or app is breached, then the bad guys have access to all your accounts. Password manager apps aren’t a bad idea.

A pass phrase instead of a password is a good way to lengthen your passwords and give you a memory aid. Myd0gD#1! is derived from “my dog Duke is No. 1.”

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For online banking and shopping apps, opt for two-factor authentication. It requires not only your password to log in but also a one-time code sent to your mobile device to prove it’s really you.

Video: How Do You Protect Your Privacy When Using a Smart Device?

3. Mute, unmute your smart speaker

While smart speakers are convenient for their instant responses to your queries, these digital assistants are always listening for their wake word — “Alexa” for Amazon Echo devices or “OK, Google” for the Google Nest or Google Home family. That means your virtual assistant is always listening.

If you don’t feel comfortable with this fact, press the Mute button on top of the smart speaker or smart display. That turns the microphone off, so the device can’t listen for its wake word. You can enable it whenever you have a request, so you’ll have to be within arm’s length when you want to use it.

While anonymized, also know your requests and commands are stored on each company’s servers after you say them, which helps these companies gather data and improve services. You can delete the information anytime:

For Alexa devices, log into your app on a smartphone or tablet and select More | Settings | Alexa Privacy | Review Voice History

For Google devices, go to Click on the Settings icon, which looks like three stacked lines ☰ and also is called a “hamburger” icon, at the top left of the page. Go to Voice & Audio Activity and select a recording to delete.

4. Disable sharing to Facebook

The world’s biggest social network doesn’t have the best reputation for privacy and transparency. But to the company’s credit, it released a tool in January 2020 for you to manage how your activity is tracked.

Called Off-Facebook activity, this tool gives you a summary of activity that businesses and organizations share with Facebook about your interactions, such as visiting their apps, games or websites — often when you log in with your Facebook ID. And it lets you turn off that tracking.

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To review your off-Facebook activity:

  • Log into Facebook.
  • Tap the hamburger icon ☰ or down arrow  at the top right, depending on your device.
  • Tap Settings & Privacy | Settings | Your Facebook information | Off-Facebook activity | View. Recent activity will show a summary of your activity that Facebook receives, but Facebook says the recent activity may take a few days to show up.
  • To turn off this tracking, tap or click where it says Manage future activity. You can also select Disconnect specific activity to keep certain businesses but not all from tracking you and Clear previous activity to remove the past 180 days of what already has been tracked. 

5. Don’t forget about your webcam

Be sure to take precautions to avoid having your camera compromised since using Zoom and other apps for video chats has become commonplace. If you use an external webcam, one that plugs into your computer’s USB port, connect it only when you need it.

If your camera is built into your laptop, pick up a lens cover, which may be available at a dollar store or for less than $5 for a pack of six online. For a camera built flush to your screen, use a double layer of tape to block the tiny lens, but don’t leave it on forever because it could gum up.

If an app tries to access your camera, some cybersecurity software solutions, such as Avast and ESET, have webcam detection. If you need to have your computer repaired, take it to a trustworthy source. An ill-intentioned technician could secretly install spyware on your laptop.

To control which apps use your computer’s webcam, on a Mac, go to the Apple icon | System Preferences | Security & Privacy | the Privacy tab | Camera. Likewise, on a Windows 11 machine, type Settings in the search box to the right of the Windows symbol toward the bottom middle of the screen and type Camera privacy settings to see which of your apps has access to your camera. You can click a toggle switch to turn off access to a particular app.

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