#PrivacyMatters: 7 Ways to Secure Your Online Communications
With these online security features, you can protect your interactions and take privacy into your own hands.
Privacy has always been integral to how we talk, share, and communicate with others. As human beings, we value it greatly: privacy allows us to have personal, honest, and genuine conversations with each other. We always take that extra precaution before a private exchange: be it keeping the doors closed during important meetings, making sure we’re not being eavesdropped upon, choosing whom not to include in confidential discussions, or simply keeping sensitive conversations off the record.
Maintaining privacy also ensures safety – especially for marginalized groups and their support systems, businesses and financial exchanges, medical professionals and their patients, and other crucial players whose vulnerability can be used against them if these private communications are compromised.
Today, with nearly all our interactions moving online, we are reliant on smartphones, computers, and other digital devices for both personal and professional exchanges. In many ways, the digital ecosystem allows us a greater degree of privacy – we can text, call, or have video exchanges across time zones and geographies, form genuine communities, and find support systems across the world.
At the same time, it’s important not to drop that guard of vigilance as we take our private communications online. As users, we must secure what’s personal, not just from unintended recipients but also hackers, fraudsters, and cybercriminals who can compromise our privacy as well as crucial personal data.
To keep your chats and messages safe from prying eyes and ears, digital platforms offer various tools and features which make sure that what’s private stays secure. And, yet millions fall prey to online fraud and have their private conversations exposed just because they were not aware of these tools.
Online security settings exist so that your most personal moments remain private. So, let’s take a look at the top 7 ways you can personally protect your private communications.
1. End-to-End Encryption Is Key
Make sure that all your communication is taking place on platforms that support end-to-end encryption (E2E). Chat apps like WhatsApp offer E2E that ensure only the sender and recipient of the message can read it. Thanks to E2E, not even the messaging platform can know the contents of the message – and much like in real life, it stays between you only.
E2E is not available everywhere. For example, while a lot of video calling apps like Zoom offer high-end security features to its users it still doesn’t support E2E which can be worrying for people who are concerned about their sensitive data online.
Bottomline? It’s best you keep those important and private conversations reserved for platforms that use E2E encryption.
2. Be Doubly Sure with Two-Factor Authentication
Two-factor authentication (2FAC) adds an extra layer of security to your online accounts. With 2FAC, a user is asked to enter a PIN which is sent to their mobile phone number. Messaging apps like WhatsApp also use 2FAC to secure their user’s chats. Whenever a user tries to activate his/her WhatsApp account on another device, they must enter a six-digit code that only they should know.
With two-step verification, even if a hacker gets hold of your WhatsApp number, they won’t be able to access your account without the six-digit PIN. And it goes without saying – that you should NEVER share that PIN with anyone – not even your closest friends.
3. We Repeat – Do Not Share Your OTP or Personal Information with Anyone
In real life, we are trained to be suspicious of strangers asking for our account details, phone numbers, and other personal information – and this same degree of vigilance must absolutely be followed online as well.
You might have heard stories about people getting duped by fake callers and disclosing their personal information like debit/credit card numbers, user ID, among other sensitive information. Similarly, a new social engineering scam particular to messaging apps has people posing as friends and close contacts and asking you for a 6-digit OTP or activation code.
DO NOT fall victim to these fraudsters and never share your OTP, no matter who asks, as it can be used to access your personal social media accounts, your bank accounts, and even hack your WhatsApp.
4. Verify Suspicious Information and Accounts
Each day, thousands of people are tricked into clicking on links that promise exclusive offers and cash prizes – stories that you would never believe if someone made you the same offer in person.
Do not click on any link that offers incentives or ask for money, especially from accounts you don’t know. Many hackers use links like these to infect a person’s smartphone with malware which can be used to steal sensitive information like bank passwords.
In fact, just like you wouldn’t entertain such a conversation in real life, you can make your messaging experience safer by disabling the option for random people to add you to groups without your permission. WhatsApp gives you that option. To activate it, go to Settings > Account > Privacy > Groups, and then tap on My Contacts.
5. Cloud Backup: Dos & Don’ts
You must have recently read in the news about the Narcotics Control Bureau (NCB) getting access to WhatsApp chats of certain celebrities. There are speculations that those chats were recovered by accessing cloud backups.
Most messaging applications in the market allow users to back up their chats on their personal Gmail account. So, while WhatsApp as a messaging platform is end-to-end encrypted, the chats that are backed up on the cloud are not. This way if someone were to access the depository of chat backup on Gmail and clone your device, they will be able to read your chats. You can easily disable this by going to WhatsApp Settings > Chats > Chat Backup > select the Back up to Google Drive option and select Never. This ensures that all the chat stays on your local device only and remains encrypted.
6. That Extra Security at Your Fingertips
As important as online privacy tools are it is also important to use the offline security features that communication platforms offer. Apps like WhatsApp and Telegram allow a user to lock the app using a PIN, biometrics like fingerprint, and facial recognition (for the iPhone). Think of it like literally locking up your private conversations, with only you having the key to access it.
You can find the option to activate these in the app’s Settings. So, even if someone has access to your phone, they cannot read your chat without your authorization.
7. Going Off the Record
Finally, a crucial part of real-life private conversations is that there is no trace of it anywhere beyond the parties involved. Today, even if you are using an E2E encrypted platform, having your phone fall into the wrong hands means that they can pry into your chats and data if they can coerce you into unlocking your device.
For situations like this, WhatsApp’s latest feature includes a Disappearing Messages update that automatically deletes all messages in a conversation box so that there is no trace. Enabling this helps prevent an everlasting digital record of the chat and makes your messaging experience feel more like a private face-to-face conversation.
When it comes to privacy – both offline and online – vigilance is key. Hackers are getting smarter each day, and it’s time we take the security controls into our own hands. A little awareness goes a long way in ensuring that your online communication stays secure and protected.
(As we conduct more of our lives online, protecting our conversations is more important than ever. #PrivacyMatters, in association with WhatsApp, aims to demystify digital privacy basics via simple explainers, best practices, and expert tips.)
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