Many of us have spent almost two years acclimating to a more virtual world, but it can still be hard to stay vigilant about online privacy and security. Even if your digital habits haven’t changed much, every new communication platform, online account, and app comes with its own settings, new password requirements, and inherent risks. It can be, frankly, overwhelming.
Here at Popular Science, we understand the struggle and have dedicated a large portion of our coverage to helping you navigate the labyrinthine portfolio of profiles and cookie crumbs you’ve scattered across the web. As a gift to you, we’ve bundled together many of our most useful stories for quick access as we roll into the new year. You may have made other resolutions for 2022, but few will protect you as much as ensuring your security practices are up to snuff.
Secure your methods of communication
If you send texts, participate in video calls, or pretty much communicate in any way that’s not face-to-face or, say, through secret codes knitted into cozy scarves, your words could easily end up in the hands of anyone hoping to monitor or profit from the things you say. It’s important to guard against virtual eavesdroppers where you can.
To start, consider Signal, Telegram, or one of a handful of secure messaging apps—even iMessage conversations are end-to-end encrypted. We covered six excellent choices in early 2021 when WhatsApp announced it planned to share more user data with its parent company, Meta (formerly Facebook), and you should be able to find one that fits your needs. It’s worth noting that Facebook Messenger comes with E2E encryption, but you’ll have to turn it on yourself. You may also find it useful to send self-destructing messages on social media and other platforms.
One easily overlooked feature here is location sharing, which is available in various messaging apps but not restricted to them. It can be useful to help others understand where you are, perhaps for travel or safety reasons, but you likely don’t want to broadcast your location to the world. Take a minute to check where you could be sharing this information and confirm your location sharing settings are exactly what you want them to be.
Don’t think video calls are guaranteed to be safe either. Your words aren’t written down but they could be recorded, and many platforms come with supplementary chat functions. Before you join another virtual happy hour, take stock of your video call settings. Zoom, for example, offers E2E encryption, but it’s not enabled by default. Turn it on. Beyond that, we have a general guide for proper video call security etiquette.
And before we forget, if you’re sending or exchanging any particularly spicy photos with anyone, please take some time to learn how to do so safely.
Secure your online accounts
Your data is valuable, and lots of people (and corporations) want it. We’ve compiled a guide on how to lock down your Google, Apple, Microsoft, Facebook, Twitter, and other accounts, and included links to more detailed standalone stories specific to each platform (here’s Google’s, for example). Speaking of the big G, we also have advice on what options to choose and boxes to check to manage your privacy in every Google app.
For a truly fresh start, just log out of everything. This will close any browsing sessions you forgot you left open and lock out anyone who may be snooping around on your Instagram account after you accidentally left it logged in on a university library computer last week. Get to them before they like a photo of your ex from 2016!
While you’re poking around in various account settings, keep an eye out for small but useful features that can improve your security and privacy. One, for example, is Hide My Email on Apple devices. You can use this recently expanded tool to generate burner email addresses whenever you need them, ensuring you won’t get spammed by long-deleted apps until the end of time.
Assess your passwords
We have two primary recommendations for password security: use two-factor authentication and a password manager. As indicated by its name, 2FA will ask for something other than your username and password before it grants access to an account. The second factor could be a code, a key, or a prompt sent to another device. And while you’ll need to set a master password to use a password manager, it’s much easier to remember one than dozens.
Whether you follow those suggestions or not, you should at least understand how to choose the safest possible passwords. If you’re a Safari or Google Chrome user, you’re in luck: those browsers will actually help you strengthen your login information. And you might not have considered it, but your Google search history might need its own password.
Check your apps’ permissions
Apps change often, and adjustments can fly under your radar during the year. It’s also easy to quickly tap “allow” while you’re trying to use an app without thinking of the ramifications. So if you’re lucky enough to have some time off in the near future, sit down and see what your apps are allowed to do—the process is fairly simple on both Apple and Android devices. While you’re at it, refresh your familiarity with your phone’s privacy settings.
If you want to dig deeper, you can take a little more time to see what, exactly, certain apps are sharing about you.
Limit how you are tracked online
Many companies and other organizations want to know what you do on the web, and while it can be hard to stop all tracking, you do have some control. The most popular browsers all let you limit the tracks you leave across the ether to varying extents, and you can even switch to a browser with a built-in virtual private network (VPN) if you want a higher level of security. If you’d rather stick with the browser you already have, consider some security-focused add-ons that will block ads and clean up your browsing history, among other tasks. There are even ways to track the trackers, whether they’re hidden on web pages or within your emails.