The ways to lose privacy include through the operating system, web browsers, search engines, email providers, through pirated software and malware, or your phone. Let’s look at each of these in turn.
By default, Windows 10 sends a lot of data about your web browsing, computer usage, even keystrokes and voice, back to Microsoft headquarters. Of course, they say they’re not doing anything with it other than improving their product, but you don’t really know who to trust after the ‘5-eyes’ scandal showed Microsoft, Google and many other companies were sharing sensitive data with the CIA.
The best way to avoid all that is to run Linux instead, but pragmatically most of us can’t do that for reasons ranging from technical difficulty through to needing to use Windows-only programs or hardware. The second best way is to download a free program called ‘O&O ShutUp10’ and apply the ‘recommended settings’. This will turn off the bulk of Microsoft’s spying and ‘phoning home’.
Your web browser does similar things, and again it depends how much you trust Google (who makes Chrome) or Microsoft (who makes Edge and Internet Explorer) as to how that makes you feel. One solution is to use Firefox, which is more robust than Chrome/Internet Explorer/Edge and is developed by a non-profit (Mozilla) with internet security and privacy as its core goals.
Your search engine also tracks your searches, if you’re using any of the main ones like Google or Bing. But DuckDuckGo, a silly-named-but-fully-functional search engine, is one which doesn’t, and it has a similar interface. Of course if you’re using a free email service like Gmail, Yahoo or Outlook, those will scan your emails and send (supposedly) anonymous data back to their parent companies. You can instead pay for a private email address from services such as ProtonMail, or use the email address from your internet service provider.
Using pirated software or being infected by malware can also cause your computer to transmit data to third parties. Even some non-pirated ‘free software’ online can contain ‘PUA’s or ‘Potentially-Unwanted-Programs, which can harvest user data and send it through to analytical firms. These are malware, though not as malicious as the viruses which tend to piggyback on pirated software.
If you’re using pirated software, the best solution is to stop doing so; there are plenty of legitimately-free open-source variants of different types of software out there, from office suites (Libreoffice) through to 3D-modelling (Blender). It’s not worth getting a virus just to get something you’re more familiar with. If you suspect you may have some PUAs or other malware in your system, getting a decent antivirus program such as Eset Internet Security can sort those out.
None of the above covers how your phone tracks your movements! That’s even scarier. The simplest way to avoid this to keep your phone connected to the network but not to ‘data’ or wifi, until you need to use the internet. I haven’t gone into the likes of Facebook, Twitter etc because essentially you sign away your rights to whatever you put online when you sign up. There’re a few things you can do to increase your privacy with third parties and strangers (do a web search for ‘increase facebook privacy’, for example), but you can’t hide the data from the companies themselves.
There’s a price we pay for a lot of these free things online, and it’s not always obvious what that is. A lot of the time we just have to trust that nothing too bad will come of it – but sometimes, it’s worth thinking, do I really want Mark Zuckerberg knowing what I wrote to my nephew on Christmas day?
Best of luck all.