Over four billion people use the Internet worldwide. Like you, the Internet has become the source of a lot of things for a lot of people — entertainment, news, information, shopping, and communicating. While you are surfing the web in the privacy of your own home, you may not realize that your activity isn’t that private at all. Websites, advertisers, search engines, social media platforms, hackers, scammers and spammers are all watching and collecting information … on YOU.

Why am I being tracked?

Don’t be fooled into thinking that your life isn’t interesting enough to track. The truth of the matter is, you have information that someone online would love to have. Advertisers want to know your buying habits, what websites you visit most, and what you’re typing into search engines so they can show you ads. Cyber criminals are seeking personal information they can use to hack into your accounts or steal your identity.

How to protect your privacy online

There are several proactive steps you can take right now to protect your privacy online. Some involve changing a few little-known settings on your internet browser. Others are just common sense, like not sharing too much personal information.

Clear your browsing history

Protect Your Privacy on the InternetEvery time you surf the web, you collect cookies along the way. We aren’t talking about the oatmeal raisin kind. Cookies are little bits of software that are implanted on your computer. Once it’s there, it monitors and then reports to third-parties where you go and how long you stayed there. Ever looked at shoes on the website of your favorite online retailer only to click over to another site and immediately see an ad for the exact same pair of shoes? You can thank cookies for that. Unless coded with a certain expiration date, cookies can last on your device indefinitely.

Google has announced that it will eliminate third-party cookies from Chrome, the most popular internet browser in the world, by 2022. Until then, you’ll need to remove those cookies from your device yourself. Once eliminated, they can no longer track your actions online. Click here for a list of instructions on how to remove cookies from the most commonly used internet browsers.

Use a private browser

Once you’ve removed all the cookies, you don’t want to start collecting more. Most major web browsers offer a feature that hides your browsing history and personal information. This is known as private browsing or incognito mode. While they don’t offer 100% total anonymity or data security, they also don’t save your browsing history, search records, and cookies. Click here for instructions on how to switch to private browsing mode on both your computer and phone.

Protect your passwords

These days, a password is required for just about everything. While it may be tempting to set all your passwords to something that’s easy to remember, you may be making it easy for hackers to access your accounts. Try to create a unique password for each account and stay far away from the most commonly used passwords. If the thought of keeping all those passwords straight gives you a headache, consider investing in a password manager. It’s a software program that assists in generating secure passwords, stores them in an encrypted database and then retrieves them when needed. Cnet has a comprehensive list of the best free and paid password managers available right now.

Don’t overshare on social media

Sure, it can be fun to share pictures of your family, vacation, and pets on social media. But could you also be giving away valuable information to would-be hackers? How many times have you set a security question to include something about your pet’s name, mother’s maiden name, school mascot or the city in which you were born? Could a hacker find out any of that information by searching your social media profiles?

First, check your privacy settings. You may not even be aware of what other users can see. Don’t accept friend requests from people you don’t know and even if it is someone you know, verify that it’s a real account and not a fake one. Review your “About Section” for any personal info that might be valuable to hackers. And don’t advertise on social media that you’re not at home. Thieves could use this as an opportunity to break into your house.

Beware of what you click

Phishing is an email scam that attempts to trick you into either opening an attachment that contains a virus, clicking a web link that contains a virus, or visiting a website which deceptively asks for personal information.  The email may appear to be legitimate and come from a trusted source. If you’re not sure, contact the sender directly to verify.

Don’t send private information via email

Email has become one of the most popular means of communication for both personal use and in business. What you may not realize is, email is not 100% secure and it’s the most common target for hackers. Most email service provider use encryption to send messages, which decreases the risk of an email being intercepted and read by an unknown person. However, data breaches do occur. And what if a hacker manages to gain access to your account either through a weak password or a phishing scam? If you are sending and receiving private information, there is no limit to the damage a hacker could administer.