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A starting guide to digital privacy as a college student

An iphone wrapped in chains

Jason Keller
November 26, 2018

Why care about digital privacy?

Digital privacy might not be something you think about on a daily basis. How your device and personal information get collected and used might not be the first thing on your mind when you wake up, especially as a college student. The idea that privacy is an afterthought, however, is exactly the kind of thing that led to the Cambridge Analytica Scandal earlier this year, in which a data firm based in London used the Facebook account info of 87 million users to influence the 2016 United States Election. When every app you download, service you sign up for or link you click is just another way for your data to be mined, privacy cannot be an afterthought. By changing the way software firms collect and use user data, we can set a precedent for the rapidly approaching digital future, one that respects and empowers its participants. And it starts with one user at a time. 

Privacy is like a muscle

A guide to improving your digital privacy

The more effort you put into digital privacy, the more you get out of it. In this day and age, some services are commonplace, even unavoidable. Experts are still debating the potential harm of social media on people’s mental health, but no matter what, it’s important to delete the social media you use the least or that you don’t believe you’re benefitting from. For example, if you can get rid of Facebook all together, bravo, but if you can’t, take some steps to make the impact on your privacy less severe by visiting your settings page and opting out of services you don’t need. The Electronic Frontiers Foundation has a helpful write-up on this. While you’re on your profile, visit the “Ads” section and opt out of as many ads as possible, too. Just remember that no matter what settings you select, you cannot guarantee your security while using digital platforms.

Tips for cellphones

1. Disable analytics on your phone.

By default, most manufacturers turn on analytics reporting for your device. While not inherently a bad thing, it's best practice to enable analytics only if you consent to the services. Often times, analytics are used to improve business operations or troubleshoot errors in a product. Other times they are used to collect specific data points to serve interest-based advertisements.

Analytics: Reporting services that can be used to track usage and behavior of a device, piece of software or website.

  • iOS/iPhone instructions

    1. Visit the iOS Settings app

    2. Search "Advertising" in the bar at the top

    3. Turn on “Limit Ad Tracking” and hit “Reset Advertising Identifier...”

    4. Return to search and type “Analytics"

    5. Turn off "Share iPhone Analytics" and "Share iCloud Analytics"

  • Android instructions

    1. Visit the Google Settings app

    2. Tap the "Ads" setting

    3. Tap “Reset Advertising ID”

    4. Tap “Opt out of interest-based ads”

2. Delete unused apps.

Comb through your phone and find applications that you don’t use. Delete your accounts, then the app.

Tips for desktops

Browser extension: Typically this is a user-installable component to your web browser that serves to modify or enhance your browsing. 

1. Consider installing privacy extensions to your browser.

A great list of them can be found here, and many of these are cross platform for Chrome or other browsers. I personally recommend uBlock Origin, Privacy Badger and HTTPS Everywhere as my three essentials.

2. Consider encrypting your devices.

If you’re on a Mac, your files are probably already encrypted with FileVault. If you’re on Windows, they’re wide open. Be sure you know what you’re doing before you start. Exercise caution: once your files are encrypted, there’s no way to get them back if you lose or forget your encryption key.

Encryption: A process that scrambles and encodes data on a digital device, making it readable only with an encryption key (such as a password you’ve set). 

Telemetry: A service or function that is used to gather and report behavioral data such as how often a feature is used or how hardware functions.

3. Uninstall and opt out of as many analytics and telemetry services as possible.

In many cases they can be used to improve a product or service, but in some cases, they can be used to build a profile on you. Visit your security settings and click to “privacy and security” and turn-off any unwanted reporting services.

4. Invest in a good VPN.

These are especially valuable when you're connecting to a public Wi-Fi network. Look for one with an excellent track record of protecting users' privacy. Know that free VPNs aren’t always reliable or pleasant to use. 

Special thanks to UNC's Information Management and Technology Team for input on this guide.  

VPN: A "Virtual Private Network" is a piece of software or a service that helps obscure and anonymize internet traffic by connecting you to secure VPN servers before connecting to your desired web address.

Related resources: Choosing a laptop (or alternative) for college and Glenn Greenwald's Why privacy matters TED Talk


is a senior at UNC and is planning to graduate in December 2018. He is studying journalism and writing, with an emphasis in news and multimedia. He has a passion for marketing, technology and writing, and hopes to work in marketing or research after he graduates. When he's not at work, he likes to listen to music, hike, read, study, ride his bike, write and spend time with friends.