Woman uses laptop to check her privacy settings and manage her online privacy

What is online privacy, and why is online privacy important?

Published January 9, 2023
5 min read

Key Points About: Online Privacy

  1. All online activity can pose a threat to your privacy, and the level of privacy protection you have when you’re online is called “online privacy.”

  2. Data about your activity is collected that can help companies target marketing to you, but there are also ways that hackers can get your information to commit fraud.

  3. There are laws that help protect consumers, but there are also easy ways you can help protect your online privacy

When you use the internet for anything–like shopping, or social media, or even just doing a Google search–on a computer or mobile device, the amount of protection that you have is called “online privacy.” (It may also be referred to as internet privacy or digital privacy.) Online privacy refers to how much security is in place to protect your personal information or activity when you use email, social media, websites, and apps.

What does online privacy mean to you?

As every day seems to bring news of a major data breach, new cybersecurity threats arise, or friends’ encounters with identity theft become more common, privacy and protecting personal data online feels more important than ever. And when it comes to your personal data, more online data privacy is better–but what does that really mean?

Every time you use a mobile app or the internet you could be exposing your personal data to entities that could use it to commit identity theft (and cost you a lot of money and time)–or even just to companies that mine internet users’ activity in order to sell them products. So, when you wonder “Is online privacy important?” remember that data protection matters–whether you are banking or just scrolling social media.

What are some common threats to your online privacy?

Unfortunately, all online activity or mobile app use can pose a threat to your personal privacy.

Some threats may feel small. After all, data collection happens every time you use an app, Google services, email, any social media platform, websites, or just about any online account. That’s why you might find that your favorite app somehow seems to know exactly what targeted ads to show you after you’ve been shopping online–you’ve been the subject of online behavioral advertising. It’s a good idea to know about what sensitive information is collected by services or companies you use: make sure to check out their privacy policies.

Some threats to your online privacy are bigger and could result in identity theft. Sometimes this comes in form of links that are sent by fraudsters to collect your personal information via seemingly legitimate online activity. When you click on the phony link and enter your personal information (like usernames, passwords, account numbers, etc.) you become the victim of a phishing attack.

For example, you think you are logging in to your social media account but are handing private information over to hackers who have disguised their activity as a seemingly legitimate site. If you think this has happened to you, you can report it to the government.

Other internet privacy threats attack your computer or mobile device without you knowing it when you unwittingly download a program or file that can give hackers access to information on or transmitted by your computer or mobile device.

And sometimes threats are in the form of personal information that is sold on the dark web or on people-search sites, giving cybercriminals access to details that could lead to identity theft or other fraudulent activity.

Did you know?

Discover reduces exposure of your personal information online by helping remove it from select people-search sites that could sell name, age, address, phone number and email address. Activate recurring protection scans for free with the Discover app.1

How can you protect your private information online?

There are international, national, and state data protection laws that help with privacy protection–like the General Data Protection Regulation in the E.U. and the California Consumer Privacy Act in California–and provide a level of consumer protection that helps give internet users some control of how their personal data is used.

How can you increase your data privacy and privacy online?

Your online privacy starts with your internet service provider (ISP), and you can learn about the consumer protection laws in your state and country that protect internet users’ ISP accounts. Many companies and some individuals choose to increase the privacy of their internet service provider by using a virtual private network (VPN), which adds additional privacy online by encrypting data (like the location, IP address, operating system, and other private data) about the internet users.

Additionally, your privacy settings can help improve your internet privacy.

Tips to protect your privacy online

1.     Use a different, strong password for every account, and change your passwords regularly.
It can sound intimidating to have to come up with different login credentials for every online account, but there are ways to make it easier. Consider using a password manager to help you create and keep track of your passwords. You can also enable two-factor authentication to give you added security when you log in to your accounts by using your smartphone as a second layer of verification. 

2.     Know what important data is available about you.
Did you know that there are people-search sites that aggregate publicly available personal data and may sell it to others? This can include information like your home address history, names and information of family members or roommates, work history, income information, and more. Discover® customers have access to a free service called Online Privacy Protection. Discover reduces exposure of your personal information online by helping remove it from select people-search sites that could sell your data. Activate recurring protection scans for free with the Discover app.1

3.     Know your credit score and financial activity.
By proactively checking your credit score regularly, you can keep an eye on loan applications, credit accounts, and other activity that could signify identity theft. Check with your financial institution to see if they give you access to regularly review your credit score for free.

Discover Cardmembers can check their FICO® Credit Score for free any time, and learn more about the factors that contribute to the score.  And be sure to review your monthly financial statements from your banks and credit cards to make sure that you recognize the charges and account activity. 

Discover Cardmembers can also activate free Social Security number alerts, which let you know if your Social Security number is found on any of thousands of Dark Web sites.

4.     Manage your privacy settings.
One of the most basic ways to manage your online privacy is to check the settings of the websites, programs, and apps that you use to make sure the privacy settings are as strong as you like.  For example, Google Chrome browser history and search activity can be used by Google Analytics to improve its online behavioral advertising. But you can choose how Google services and your other online experiences use your activity and potentially sensitive information.

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