How to protect your privacy online

Many bad actors are looking to steal your data, but there are steps you can take to protect privacy online.

Everything you do online leaves a trail, whether you’re shopping or just accumulating cookies while browsing the web. This makes you vulnerable, and it’s why you need to know how to protect your data and, by extension, how to protect your identity online. 

The only guaranteed way to avoid the perils of the internet is by disconnecting entirely and living off the so-called grid. But if you want a more realistic (and modern) way to protect privacy online, you should be careful about what you share, keep your devices updated, learn proper security practices, and regularly monitor your accounts for signs of identity theft.

What does it mean to stay private online?

There are multiple tips for staying private online, from remaining anonymous on social media to using tools like virtual private networks (VPNs), which encrypt your internet traffic to protect your identity and help prevent your data from being harvested. Depending on your specific concerns, you might even be able to maintain your privacy at little to no cost.

For many people, maintaining privacy online used to be the norm rather than the exception. In the days before social media, some degree of anonymity was often standard. That’s no longer the case, even for those who have never set up social media accounts.  

The question of how to protect your privacy online isn’t just about wanting to keep your personal information out of the spotlight. The more of your data that’s available through online portals, the more ammunition hackers have when trying to access your accounts. 

Fortunately, the same steps you can take to protect your online privacy can also help protect your financial accounts from fraudulent activities. 

How can you protect privacy online?

One of the most basic rules for protecting your privacy online is to avoid sharing any information you wouldn’t want a stranger to see. Of course, that’s easier said than done. Even if you don’t feel comfortable sharing your kids’ pictures on social media, you might still unwittingly offer details that someone could use to access more private information. (Example: Using information you’ve already publicly shared, like your first car or hometown, as an answer to a security question.) You can always choose not to create any social media accounts or to only interact with people you know in real life. 

Two coworkers sit and chat in an open-plan office, with computers and plants in the background.

Meanwhile, online banking services and other vendors, such as utility companies, will require you to share private information. Still, there are some simple ways to help make sure this data is protected.

Use strong passwords that are hard to guess, along with two-factor authentication, and never reuse your passwords across multiple accounts. While this suggestion seems obvious, many people don’t follow it; 62% of professionals admit to “always” or “mostly” using the same password or a variation, per LastPass

Tip: Two-factor authentication, sometimes called 2FA, requires two forms of identification—such as a password entered online plus a code sent to your phone—to gain access to a site or data.

Also, be vigilant when entering any personal information into a company’s website—make sure the site is legitimate first. Scammers will use texts or emails with fake alerts and links that clone login forms and steal your info. If you’re ever in doubt about the legitimacy of a message, you should contact your bank or enter the website directly into your browser rather than clicking on a link. 

How can you protect your devices?

Having more internet-enabled devices can be a convenience, but it also means more opportunities for your data to be stolen. It’s important to keep track of your smartphone, computer, and tablet and to stay current on software updates.

We’ve all done it before. You get the update notification on your laptop, but you’re in the middle of working or watching an adorable puppy video, so you click the “Try again later” option. And then you click it again and again—every time the “later” option appears. Updating your devices might be inconvenient, but it’s an important and simple way to make sure they remain protected from potential cyberattacks. 

You should also be careful when using public Wi-Fi, like in a coffee house, as there is a chance that other users on the network could steal your login information. Stay away from sites that contain personal or financial information or use a VPN to connect and keep your browsing activity secure.

Finally, having access to all of the updated security software in the world can’t stop you from forgetting your phone somewhere. Two-factor authentication won’t help much if the access code is sent directly to a hacker’s pocket. That’s why you always need to keep an eye on your devices when you’re out in public and keep them in a secure location on your person. However, even if your mobile device is lost, a strong lock code can provide a last line of defense. 

The major cell phone companies are constantly running updates to increase security on their devices. For example, an early 2024 update requires a biometric (face or fingerprint) scan to gain access to a phone when it’s away from certain known areas, like home and work.  

The more of your data that’s available on the web, the more ammunition hackers have when trying to access your accounts.

How to protect your identity online

While celebrities and public figures may hire dedicated firms to protect their identities, most of us lack those resources. Still, the average person can take steps to avoid identity theft by practicing proper security measures and regularly checking their accounts for unusual activity.

Discover® customers who access their online account through our mobile app can activate free online privacy protection.1 This service regularly scans for your personal information online and alerts you to any findings, providing you with the opportunity to opt out if your personal information is publicly available.     

A lot of the same guidelines to help protect your data and privacy more generally will also help prevent identity theft. Maintaining strong passwords, using two-factor authentication whenever possible, and being careful about what you share on social media can all make you a more challenging target for identity theft.

You can’t completely protect yourself without going off the grid entirely, however, which is why it’s important to regularly monitor your financial accounts for unusual activity. For example, if you see charges to your credit card that you don’t remember making, immediately inform your issuer, consider freezing your card, and change your passwords. Work with your financial institutions—from banks to credit card issuers—to enroll in all options to receive alerts about unusual activity.  

Feel more confident online

Now that you know more about how to protect your data, you can enjoy the conveniences of our interconnected world without as much worry. Modern online banking systems like Discover also offer many safeguards, including identity theft alerts and the option to freeze your account if you misplace your card or notice an errant charge.

Learn how resources available at the Discover Online Banking Security Center can help keep your accounts safe.

Articles may contain information from third parties. The inclusion of such information does not imply an affiliation with the bank or bank sponsorship, endorsement, or verification regarding the third party or information.

1 Online Privacy Protection is offered by Discover Bank at no cost and only available in the mobile app.  About every 90 days we will scan at least 10 people-search sites for your online personal information and help you submit opt-out requests.  Types of personal information found on these sites will vary.