Every time we get on the internet or pick up a mobile device, we expand our digital footprint by another few bytes. Websites mark your interests with cookies, e-commerce sites store your credit card number, newsletters need your email address and social-media sites track your birthday, job history and the names of your friends.
We used to accept this as the cost of convenience but identity theft and government requests for information are making us think twice about our online privacy the tracks we're creating.
If you'd rather play it safe then end up sorry, these four tools can help you mask your trail and clean up the footprints you've already left behind:
Whether you're searching online for legal advice or a like-minded political pal, your search history has the potential to cause trouble if it falls into the wrong hands. DuckDuckGo is an anonymous search engine that says it doesn't track you or save your search history. It also doesn't filter your results, so you'll see the same top returns everyone else sees when they search the same phrase.
You can use DuckDuckGo with any browser. There's a plugin for Firefox and there's also a free mobile app for iOS and Android.
If you want to see who is tracking you while you browse the internet, try adding the Disconnect extension to Firefox or Chrome. Then, as you navigate around the web, Disconnect tallies up the tracking requests and presents them to you by category such as advertising and social media. Then you can make an informed decision about which requests to block in the future.
Disconnect is offered under a "pay-what-you-want" model. Suggested donations start at $10 and can go as high as you'd like to pay.
3. Hotspot Shield
For more protection while you're on the go, download AnchorFree's Hotspot Shield. This VPN (virtual private network) protects your privacy when you're using a public Wi-Fi hotspot. It masks your IP and they say their enhanced level of security makes it safe to transmit sensitive information such as passwords and credit card numbers.
Hotspot Shield, which is available on iOS and Android devices, also allows for anonymous browsing and it hides your location so you can access sites with geo-blocking. The only downside to using any VPN is that it slows your connection but that's part of the price you pay for security. The other part is a subscription fee of .99 a month or 11.99 a year.
Since you've already spent several years leaving an identity trail all over the internet, you might need a tool such as SafeShepherd.com to help you clean it up. The site runs a scan of data harvesting websites and "people search" engines then returns a list of spots where it found your address, email or phone.
If you buy a membership for $13.95 a month, SafeShepard can act on your behalf to get the data removed. It can also notify you when your information turns up on a new site and monitor Facebook and Twitter to make sure you don't overshare.