How to hide your online activities from the NSA

Photo courtesy Flickr user Alan Cleaver

(MoneyWatch) With Edward Snowden's revelations of widespread National Security Agency surveillance of Americans, you might be wary of the government monitoring your online activities. Yet while there is certainly some flame behind all the smoke, government monitoring is just the tip of the iceberg. For many, a bigger concern may be data collection by private companies.

With so many organizations snooping on your online data, what steps can you take to protect yourself?

Quite a few, actually. Some are simple and straightforward, while a few take the dedication of someone who prizes anonymity above convenience. Recently, eHow Tech illustrated a range of options for ensuring your privacy online. Here are the top five steps you can take to remain relatively anonymous and invisible:

Sandbox Facebook. Anyone who has spent much time on the Internet knows that Facebook is more or less the antithesis of privacy. Everything you do on that site is meticulously tracked and stored, and thanks to Graph Search it's available for all the world to see in intimate detail. Less well known is that Facebook captures some data about you when you're browsing the Web outside of Facebook -- even if you're actually logged out. The solution? Dedicate a particular browser to Facebook, and use it only for the social network. Conduct all of your other online activities in Firefox or Chrome.

Abandon Google. Walking away from the most popular search engine might be a drastic step, but if you don't want your search activities tracked and cataloged, then it's something you'll need to do. Of course, your search history is anonymized by Google, but that might be little consolation for some. Consider the search engine DuckDuckGo, which has an official "no tracking" policy.

Use a VPN. I've recommended using a Virtual Private Network many times before, and it remains one of the most powerful tools for encrypting your data and protecting you and your PC when you're online. A VPN such as Private Internet Access is all but essential if you spend a lot of time connecting to public Wi-Fi hotspots, like at the local coffee shop.

Go dark with TOR. For the ultimate in online protection, consider TOR, a free app designed to shield you from online surveillance. It uses a technology called onion routing that disguises your location through a layered set of encrypted data tunnels. That lets you publish content online, including web pages and chats, as well as participate in public forums, without revealing your location. Used by activists and journalists, it's easy enough to use that you can employ it yourself.

Turn off your webcam. Finally, don't forget about your webcam. Whether you have one sitting on your desk or simply built into your laptop, it's easy to ignore and in fact even forget you own it at all. But malicious users and malware can take control of your webcam and monitor you or record your every move. Disable it, disconnect it or simply cover it with tape.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Alan Cleaver

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