How to Take Back Control of Your Digital Life

The future may look like a digital dystopia where your private data is sold over and over again to the highest bidder. And we’ve certainly talked a lot about impending cyberwars on the horizon. While we’ll never be able to quash these threats, we can at least stop them from completely consuming us. Here, then, are seven steps for wrestling back a little bit of control over your digital life—and making everyone else a little safer in turn. Because the more you protect yourself, the more you protect the world.

Step #1: Acceptance
Time required: Possibly your whole life.

You’re not going to get back your personal privacy writ large. Unfortunately, we’ve lost too much data—or that data has been compromised beyond repair—for you to retrieve, say, the password you used for your AOL account in 2000. But just because the data is gone, that doesn’t mean we can’t act.

Think about how and where you spend the majority of your time online, from the websites you browse—to shop, read the news, and keep in touch with friends—to the apps you use every day, like WhatsApp and Google Maps. These are good places to shore up your defenses against potential attacks on your private information.

It’s easy to improve your web and mobile habits by doing things like better managing your passwords, picking search engines that don’t track you, finding more secure email clients, and removing app permissions, among other measures. We’ll walk you through each step.

Step #2: Build Better Passwords
Time required: 15 minutes.

At this point, everyone should be using a tool that helps with password encryption given how many sites and apps require passwords. The best advice, of course, is to pick a unique code for each site and app you use; if a hacker steals one password, they don’t have access to the rest of your accounts. But this simply isn’t realistic, unless you have an incredible memory.

So the next best bet is to find a solid password management system. You can download, install, and begin using a service like Bitwarden, Lastpass, DashLane or 1Password in under 15 minutes. All you need to do is enter one password, and then these services generate complicated, more secure passwords for each of your accounts.

Step #3: Use a Search Engine That Doesn’t Track You
Time required: 2 minutes.

“The big internet advertising companies track and collect data on you and your worst weaknesses,” says Aleks Jakulan, the CEO of 1o. “To hide from them, you need to live like a spy or a ninja.”

You might think that Microsoft’s Do Not Track or Google’s Incognito settings keep you safe, but that’s a misnomer. There are no federal regulations that require websites to honor a “Do Not Track” request. Instead, use safe search engines like DuckDuckGo or Startpage, which don’t filter search results based on your history or share your browsing data with the sites you visit.

Step #4: Buy More Secure Hardware
Time required: 30 minutes.

Let your hardware work better for you. Consider the purchase of a personal server and more secure routers. A personal server, like Helm, ensures that your data stays in your home and not on the web servers of companies like Amazon and Microsoft, where they have more potential to be found. Designed with security first, Helm helps you take back ownership of your files, photos, emails, browsing activity, and more. Additionally, routers like Eero have options for making your network more secure. For $99 per month, you can use Eero Secure+, which filters all web traffic, blocks malicious and benign ads, and warns against potentially dangerous websites.

Step #5: Practice Data Minimization
Time required: A little longer than you thought—but it’s worth it.

You can also clean up your data and privacy settings on the websites you use most frequently. “Many sites allow you to delete data after a certain time, or you can simply turn off the device to prevent data collection, such as for personal assistants, or disabling cookies and limiting data that tracks your website browsing,” says Andrea Little Limbago of Virtru, an email encryption service.

For social media sites like Facebook and Twitter, that means leveraging the privacy settings and access privileges. Meanwhile, for each of your most-used apps, look at the permissions that are granted and limit any unnecessary data collection and sharing, she says. “Avoiding public Wi-Fi and avoiding signing onto sites through your social media account can also limit third-party access to your data, as can using privacy-focused browsers.”