Privacy Tips That Do Less Than You Think

These tricks can help you, but before you use them, it's critical to understand their limitations

security Giacomo Bagnara

We love tips and tricks for protecting your privacy. But some widely repeated techniques aren’t as helpful as you might expect.

An online pseudonym, for example, won’t fully conceal your identity. Nor does the incognito mode on your web browser.

While both offer some safeguards, it’s important to understand their shortcomings before you use them. The same goes for the other techniques listed below.

“I wouldn’t discourage anyone from taking these steps,” says Justin Brookman, director of privacy and technology policy for Consumer Reports. “You just need to know that they aren’t bulletproof. They’re effective at slowing down infringements on your privacy and security as long as you have a clear picture of their limitations.”

$ecret P@ssw0rd C0de
Strong passwords are hard to remember. That’s why many people try tactics such as taking a familiar word and replacing “A’s” with “@’s” and “E’s” with “3’s.” But these days criminals have software capable of beating those kinds of ploys. The best passwords are long, random strings of letters, numbers, and special characters.

More on Privacy

Fake Social Media Names
A clever online pseudonym may protect you from the prying eyes of friends, family, and some data collectors, but it won’t throw companies such as Google off your trail. They use digital breadcrumbs—email addresses, phone numbers, WiFi network locations, and ID numbers tied to your devices—to keep track of who you are and what you’re doing online.

Incognito Mode
The incognito or private mode on your web browser can hide your online behavior from other people who use your computer. It may also stop companies from storing trackers such as cookies on your laptop. But it won’t necessarily conceal your identity, location, or activity from your internet service provider or websites you visit. That’s especially true if you log in to a service in an incognito tab with the same credentials you always use.

Turning Off Location Tracking
The permissions settings on smartphones let you revoke access to your device’s GPS from mobile apps that have no need for that data. On the latest mobile operating systems, those settings even limit tracking through WiFi and Bluetooth. That makes it harder to figure out exactly where you are, but there are yet more ways to track you. Companies such as Facebook, for example, can still determine your location using details about your internet connection, and according to a Facebook spokesperson, the company uses that data for targeted advertising and other business purposes.

Editor’s Note: This article also appeared in the October 2019 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.


Headshot image of Electronics editor Thomas Germain

Thomas Germain

I want to live in a world where consumers take advantage of technology, not the other way around. Access to reliable information is the way to make that happen, and that's why I spend my time chasing it down. When I'm off the clock, you can find me working my way through an ever-growing list of podcasts. Got a tip? Drop me an email ( thomas.germain@consumer.org) or follow me on Twitter ( @ThomasGermain) for my contact info on Signal.