Private Internet Access

What is private Internet access, and why should I use it?

As we have discussed previously, analyzing your computer’s Internet (Protocol) address — or IP address, for short — is a method that can be used to track your activity on the Internet.  It allows you to be tracked in two ways:

  1. It uniquely identifies your computer on the Internet.  This ensures websites that they are dealing with your computer and not someone else’s, which may allow them to access cookies and other tracking data on your computer.

  2. Certain parts of your IP address correspond to geographic locations.  This means that websites can analyze your IP address in order to tell where in the world you’re connecting from.  This may cause them to allow you access to some types of content and not others.

To get around being followed on the Internet, or being profiled and restricted based on where one lives, some people prefer to access the Internet privately.  This can include using a fake IP address to make it look like they are connecting to the Internet from another computer or country entirely.  This can be achieved by using a virtual private network.

What is a virtual private network (VPN)?

A virtual private network — or VPN, for short — is a system for connecting to the Internet while keeping your Internet activity secure and anonymous from anyone else on the Internet.  Most VPNs are based on two main technologies: IP spoofers and proxy servers.

IP spoofers are programs that allow a person to temporarily modify their computer’s IP address.  This can fool websites into thinking that the person is connecting to the Internet from somewhere other than their own computer in their own country.  To learn more, visit our IP Spoofing article.

Proxy servers are computers that allow you to route your computer’s Internet connection and activities through them.  This means that, to websites and others who track your Internet activity, what you do on the Internet appears to be coming from the proxy computer, and not your actual computer.  Thus, your activity doesn’t get tracked back to you as an individual.  Our Proxy Servers article has more information.

How do I get private Internet access through a VPN?

There are many VPN programs available on the Internet.  Some are free, while some require a paid subscription in order to access premium features, or to use them at all.  As always, shop around and find programs that are popular and trusted to try.  Don’t just use any VPN program that you find; some may be fakes that allow their authors to track your Internet activity even more easily than usual.

Some popular and trusted free VPNs that we would suggest include:

 AnchorFree Hotspot Shieldwww.hotspotshield.com

 CyberGhostwww.cyberghostvpn.com

 TunnelBearwww.tunnelbear.com

As for how to actually use a VPN, most are relatively straightforward:

  1. Download and install the VPN program, and then run it.

  2. Select which proxy server you wish to connect to.

  3. Tell the VPN that you wish to connect, usually with the click of a button.

  4. Once you’re connected to the VPN, browse the Internet as usual!

 

Well, that’s a quick overview of how to get private Internet access through a virtual private network!


Proxy Servers

What is a proxy server?

The word "proxy" refers to someone or something that acts on behalf of someone or something else.  So, basically, a "proxy server" is a computer that accesses the Internet for you, responding to where you want to go and what you want to do.  It then sends back what it finds over a secure connection.

The advantage to using a proxy server is that it makes your Internet activity difficult to track.  While you're the one going places and doing things on the Internet, all that websites, programs, and people trying to track your activity see is the proxy server doing all the work.  In order to tell that your unique computer is the one calling the shots, they would have to break into the secure connection between you and the proxy server.

What are some free proxy servers that I can use?

Many private web browsers and virtual private networks (VPNs) use proxy servers by default, as part of what they do.  We suggest checking out our Private Web Browsers and Private Internet Access articles for recommendations on free private web browsers or VPNs to use.

There are also some websites that you can use as proxy servers, without having to download or install any programs.  Be sure to research some trusted ones to use (like we have here), and don't just use any one that you come across.  Some might be fakes that make your Internet activity easier to track.

 Proxy.orgwww.proxy.org

 Ninja Cloakwww.ninjacloak.com

 BlewPasswww.blewpass.com

How to use a proxy server

As a demonstration of how to use a proxy server, we'll show you how to use Ninja Cloak. 

  1. The first step is, obviously, to go to the website that hosts the proxy server that you want to use.

  2. There should be a box where you can enter a website address (it will usually include "http://" to give you a clue).  Just click in this box and type in the URL of the website that you want to visit.  In this example, we'll go to YouTube.

  3. Depending on the proxy server that you're using, you may have additional options.  For example, you may be able to block any cookies that you receive, or stop any background programs that might track you or even put a harmful program on your computer.

  4. When you're all set, click Go.

  5. There!  Now you're on YouTube, but YouTube doesn't know that it's you accessing it!

Notes on using a proxy server

  • Since proxy servers funnel your Internet activity through another computer, your Internet speed may slow down a bit.  This is because it takes extra time for Internet traffic to go from your computer to the proxy computer and out to the Internet, and then come back the other way through the proxy server to your computer.

  • Some proxy websites are known to other websites and can be blocked by them.  Some websites may also not work properly if you use a proxy website to access them.  In that case, you may want to use a private web browser or virtual private network instead.  

  • A way to check if the proxy server is working is by going to a website like https://www.whatismyip.com without using a proxy server, and record what your IP address is.  Then, access the same website by using a proxy server, and see if your IP address changes.  If it does, then you'll know that the proxy server is working.

 

Well, that's a brief rundown on proxy servers and how to use them!


Case Study: Facebook Privacy Policy

We’ve gone over some information about privacy policies in general, as well as some tips for staying private on social media, so let’s bring it all together in a practical example.  In this lesson, we’ll use Facebook’s privacy policy as a case study to show you what to look for in terms of what’s covered in terms of your privacy while using a website, and what you’ll need to watch out for.  We’ll investigate using the ten key questions from our Privacy Policies article as a guide:

  1. What information do I need to provide to use the website?

  2. Does the website collect or ask for any other non-essential information from me?

  3. Am I allowing the website to collect information from me by simply using it?

  4. Why does the website claim that they are collecting or asking for my information?

  5. Does the website share/sell/trade the information that they collect from me?

  6. With whom does the website share my collected information?

  7. When does the website share my collected information?

  8. How long does the website keep my collected information?

  9. Does the website delete my information, or simply de-personalize it?

  10. Is anyone else allowed to collect my information when I use the website?

Facebook privacy policy: preamble

This is the introduction to Facebook’s “Data Policy”, as they refer to their privacy policy.

Note the highlighted sentence, which says that there are some functions on Facebook that have their own privacy policies and are not covered by this one.  Right off the bat, we’ve answered question #10.

Question #10 answer: YES. There are certain other functions on Facebook that collect your information and are NOT covered by Facebook’s overall privacy policy.

Facebook privacy policy, part 1: Types of collected information

This section of Facebook’s Data Policy concerns what types of information they collect from you.

It doesn’t exactly say what information Facebook needs from you in order to use the website.  However, if you go to Facebook’s home page (assuming that you’re not already signed into Facebook), you will see that it requires:

  • Your first name

  • Your last name

  • Your email address OR phone number

  • Your date of birth

  • Your gender

The rest of this section pretty much deals with the answer to questions #2 and #3.  Some of the more interesting sections are highlighted; for example, Facebook can track your information:

  • When other people (besides you) post it or use it

  • When you access Facebook with a specific device (i.e. it tracks that device’s details)

  • When you aren’t using Facebook itself, but a website owned by or integrated with Facebook

Question #2 answer: YES.  Besides the information that is necessary to use Facebook, the website also collects the following information:

  • Details about content that you post, such as a photo’s location or a file’s date of creation

  • Details on what kinds of content you post or look at most often or for the longest duration

  • Details that others use or post about you (such as when they tag you or look you up)

  • Details on who you connect with, communicate with, or share with the most

  • Billing and address information (if you purchase something on Facebook)

  • Details about the device(s) that you use to access Facebook

  • Details about you from other non-Facebook websites or entities that you interact with

Question #3 answer: YES.  You are allowing Facebook to collect your information when you:

  • Sign up for an account

  • Post or view content

  • Connect with, communicate with, or share with your friends

  • Access Facebook with a certain device (e.g. desktop computer vs. smart phone)

  • Access websites that are integrated or affiliated with Facebook

Facebook privacy policy, part 2: Use of collected information

This part of Facebook’s data policy explains why they need the information that you provide to them, or that they collect from you.

It is interesting to note, in the first highlighted section here, that Facebook wants to know what you’re interested in both “on and off our Services”.  Remember, there are other services on Facebook that collect your information and aren’t covered by the main privacy policy.  Also remember that there are certain websites affiliated or integrated with Facebook where Facebook is allowed to collect your information.

Anyway, this section largely answers question #4.

Question #4 answer: Facebook claims to collect or ask for your information in order to:

  • Run its “Services”

  • Personalize content and make suggestions (i.e. show you some things and not others)

  • Send you marketing communications and show you relevant ads (i.e. targeted advertising)

  • Promote safety and security for the website by verifying accounts and activity

Facebook privacy policy, part 3: Sharing of your collected information

This section deals with who else gets to see any information that you give to Facebook, or that Facebook collects from you.  It’s split into two parts: sharing on Facebook, and sharing with third parties.

Part A: Sharing on Facebook

The first part mainly goes over the fact that you can use privacy controls on Facebook to decide who gets to see your original content.  However, as we have highlighted in the first box here, content that you share with other people whom you know on Facebook can also be shared with people whom they know on Facebook.  This may include some people whom you do not know or whom you did not intend to see your content, so keep that in mind when deciding whether to post something on Facebook or not.

The second part we’ve highlighted is a reminder that, even if you aren’t directly using Facebook, they can still track you if you’re using a website that belongs to — or is integrated with — Facebook.

We’ve also highlighted another part here, since it has been a source of lingering criticism towards Facebook.  Using certain third-party services on Facebook may result in those services being able to access all public information about you on Facebook.  In addition, such services are subject to their own privacy policies, not Facebook’s.  This is something to keep in mind if you want to do things on Facebook such as play games.

The last part we’ve highlighted shows you that Facebook can share your information with any of the other companies that it owns, or that are purchased from Facebook in the future.

Part B: Sharing with third parties

The first section that we’ve pointed out here is a supplementary answer to question #4: Facebook collects your information to sell to advertisers so that you don’t have to bear the cost of running Facebook’s services.

Next, we’ve pointed out that Facebook shares your information with advertisers and analytics companies.  However, it de-personalizes this information and does not share anything that would directly identify you (such as your email address or real name) without your explicit permission.

The last point we’ve highlighted here is that Facebook shares your information with service providers and certain others (such as academic institutions) in order to deliver its services, such as providing customer help, processing payments, and doing research.  All of these partners have to abide by Facebook’s data policy and other confidentiality agreements.

In summary, these two sections deal mostly with questions #4, #5, #6, and #7.

Question #4 update: Facebook claims to collect (and share) your information in order to:

  • Provide their services for free (i.e. they’re supported by advertising)

  • Analyze how well advertisements on Facebook work

  • Provide other functions, such as customer service, payment processing, and research/surveys

Question #5 answer: YES.  Facebook does share the information that they collect from you with others.

Question #6 answer: Facebook shares the information that they collect from you with:

  • Other companies owned by Facebook

  • Companies no longer owned by Facebook, but that help provide Facebook’s services

  • Advertisers and analytics companies

  • Service providers, academic institutions, and others bound by strict confidentiality policies

Question #7 answer: Facebook shares the information that they collect from you with their partners at these times:

  • Only shares personally-identifiable information with advertisers with your explicit permission

  • Shares your public, non-identifiable information with their partners pretty much whenever they want

Question #10 update: YES.  Third-party app developers who make their apps available to use on Facebook can collect your information while you’re on Facebook, but only if you use their apps.

Facebook privacy policy, part 4: Management/deletion of information

This section deals with how long Facebook keeps your information, and what control you have over it.

We’ve pointed out a couple of things here.  First is that Facebook keeps any information that you provide to them (or that they collect from you) until they deem that it is no longer necessary in order for them to provide their services.  In other words, they can keep your information pretty much for as long as they want.

The exception, which is the second thing that we’ve pointed out, is if you delete your account.  This will delete all information that Facebook has on you that was directly contributed by you. 

However, as we have highlighted in the last section, this will not delete any information that other people have shared from your account.  This information is now part of their accounts, not yours.

Anyway, we now have our answers to questions #8 and #9.

Question #8 answer: Facebook keeps all information collected about you for as long as they want to use it to provide their products and services, or until you delete your account.  Also, information shared from your account to other accounts is retained under similar circumstances (i.e. until Facebook no longer wants it, or the account that shared your content is deleted).

Question #9 answer: In addition to de-personalizing information shared with advertisers, analytics firms, and others, Facebook outright deletes any information directly contributed by you when you delete your account.

Facebook privacy policy, part 5: Legal use of collected information

This section deals with how Facebook may use your information in order to comply with national and international laws, or to protect themselves and others from abuse or other criminal activity.

It’s basically a bunch of legal exceptions to how Facebook can collect and share your information, so we’ll update a few of our answers here.

Question #6 update: Facebook may share your information with governments and law enforcement agencies, both national and international.

Question #7 update: Facebook may share your information with governments and law enforcement agencies when:

  • They receive a good-faith legal request, such as a search warrant or court order

  • They believe that it is necessary to prevent fraud or other criminal activity on Facebook

  • They believe that it is necessary to protect themselves or a user from death or bodily harm

Question #9 update: Facebook may keep your information — even if you request its deletion — when:

  • It is the subject of a legal request, such as a search warrant or a court order

  • You are under investigation for criminal activity or other violations of Facebook’s policies

  • Your Facebook account has previously been suspended for violating Facebook’s policies

 

Well, that’s an overview of the major sections of Facebook’s privacy policy, and an analysis of them using our ten-question framework!  So, do you think that your privacy is in good hands when you use Facebook, or are there certain parts of it that you’re wary about?  We’d love it if you let us know your thoughts in the comments below.

Just to be clear, we’re not trying to scare you off Facebook by telling you all this.  With the exception of the most intentionally privacy-conscious websites out there, many services on the Internet — especially social networks — have similar privacy policies.  We are simply trying to make you aware of how your information is tracked, collected, and used on Facebook within a framework that is a bit easier to digest than reading a lengthy legal document word-for-word.

Also, there are some tips and tricks in the other articles in this course that may help keep you more private on Facebook by interfering with how Facebook tracks and collects information about your activity (and don’t worry; it’s all perfectly legal).  Have a look!


Finding Your Information Online

Why should I try to find my own information online?

You probably already know a lot of information about yourself; after all, it's your information.  But the question we want you to ask is: who else knows this information, or could easily find it out?  And do I mind if that happens?

For example, could your employer or someone else that you work with find what you're up to on social media?  Or could someone find your address or phone number, and use that to figure out where you live?  Or could they find your email address and flood your inbox with unsolicited messages?

In general, searching for your own information online serves two main purposes:

  1. As we just discussed, it shows you how much information about yourself is publicly accessible, so you know what other people can easily find out about you.

  2. It shows you which websites are tracking and sharing your information, so you know where to focus your efforts in terms of securing the privacy of your information on the Internet.

How to find your own information online (A.K.A. "Googling yourself")

If your information is publicly available online, it will usually be picked up by most search engines.  Therefore, an easy way to find out what information about you is out there on the Internet is to type it into a search engine and see what comes up.  This is commonly known as "Googling yourself".

Go to www.google.com (or whatever search engine you commonly use) in your web browser, and type in a piece of information about yourself.

TIP: Put quotation marks (" ") around the terms that you type in.  This will tell your search engine to look for results that contain all of your information, exactly in the order in which you entered it.

Some ideas for things to search for about yourself include:

  • Name — Try searching for your first name and last name, or even your middle name, too.  Also try typing your last name first, and then a comma, and then your first (and maybe middle) name.

  • Street Address — Try adding your city and state/province/territory to narrow it down.

  • Phone Number — Type it in without adding any spaces or hyphens.  This will search for all instances of it, including ones that do have spaces or hyphens.

  • Email Address — If you have more than one, try typing in all of them.

What should I do if I find my information where I don't want it to be?

Unfortunately, information on the Internet is generally difficult to hide or get rid of.  This is largely because it's much easier for other people to copy it and display it in a public space than it is for someone to successfully get it taken down.  With that said, there are a few steps that you can take to put yourself back in control of your own information on the Internet.

1. Change your privacy settings

Some websites, such as social networks, will allow you to change your privacy settings so that people can't find your information from outside the website (i.e. through using search engines).  Facebook, for example, allows you to choose whether or not people outside Facebook can find your profile on the website by looking for your name, email address, or phone number on search engines.

For information on how to change these settings, see our How to Change Facebook Privacy Settings tutorial.

2. Delete your account

Another option is to simply deactivate or delete your account on the website that's displaying your information publicly.  However, be aware that some websites may still display and/or keep your information (at least for a time) if you do so, as per their privacy policies.

See our tutorial on Privacy Policies for this and other things to look for when reading a website's privacy policy.

3. Directly request a removal

In the privacy policies of some websites, they have a clause saying that they will delete your information from their records (even if they're holding it after you close or delete your account) if you directly request for them to do so.  And even if a website doesn't have a stipulation like this in their privacy policy, you may still want to send them an email requesting the deletion of your information, and see how they respond.

Note that websites may not always honour your direct request for them to delete your information, especially if they do not make a specific allowance for this in their privacy policy.  And even if they do make an allowance, they may not delete your information immediately after your request.  They may display and/or keep it for a month or more, if they are required to do so by law or may possibly need the information to comply with certain other legal obligations.

 

Well, that's our advice on why you may want to try finding your own information online, how to do it, and what to do if you don't want other people to see it.