The Internet has become ubiquitous, something we all rely upon to conduct work, purchase products, do research, schedule vacations, access entertainment, manage our finances and more. Yet, just how secure is our personal information? It seems that almost every week, we hear of a new data breach or privacy concern, Menlo Park’s Facebook’s leak of 87 million of its user base to big data company, Cambridge Analytica, being one of the most recent and alarming issues.
Not so long ago, people were extremely cautious about sharing of personal information for fear of the government gaining access to this data and using it to abuse their power, invading the privacy of the masses. This fear is based upon George Orwell’s novel, 1984, about a fictional dictatorship in which the citizens are being watched by their ruler, Big Brother, who wields complete power over the entire population. Posters claiming, “Big Brother is watching you” remind residents that their ruler knows everything they do at all times.
Today, for many, this apprehension has been tossed aside as we openly and willingly provide and share information online on a multitude of websites. As residents of Silicon Valley, the hub of high tech, we are possibly more trusting and accepting of using technology to manage our lives, which means imparting our information to businesses via the Internet. From banks to healthcare providers, social media platforms to online shopping, entertainment and cloud computing services all have a detailed profile of each of us. No longer do we question proving our birthdate, Social Security Number, or other vital details. We share photos of our families, travels and life events on social media, give details about our likes and dislikes, personal milestones, education, and where we live. Search engines track our every move, logging where we’ve been online, what we are looking to purchase, what our interests are, often with the primary goal to sell our preferences to others.
But how safe is this information? The recent Facebook scandal shows that frequently, we are unknowingly opted into minimal privacy settings, placing our data in a ‘compromising position’. Many companies gather and compile our data, which they sell or distribute to third parties for profit. And sometimes, these businesses do not have enough security safeguarding our information, resulting in unintentional leaks or intentional hacking, placing millions of users’ data into the hands of corporations or people for which it was never intended.
To quote an article in InfoWorld from October 2017, “Data breaches are an unfortunate consequence of the application of technology in the modern world. The information economy has placed a significant premium on personal information relating to everything from finance to dating, and even health care. Information stored in data banks is often protected by some form of security, but each of these data banks is subject to breach, whether due to human error or criminal aggression.”
In an era where keeping our personal information private is becoming more and more difficult, what can we do to minimize being a victim of a data breach or having our information sold without our permission?
- Understand the privacy settings for all sites, especially social media, for which you sign up. Change the defaults to be as high as possible or opt out of all data sharing.
- Take advantage of free annual credit reports. Each of the three main credit bureaus will provide one free report each year. Request a report for one company every four months to ensure you are aware of any issues that may arise.
- Never input any information onto a website that is not secure, which is indicated by an https at the start of the site’s URL.
- Use strong passwords and PIN numbers. Avoid using the same ones on multiple accounts or services. Never share this information with anyone you do not trust implicitly. Change passwords and PINs frequently.
- Be on constant alert for phone and email scams. Never click on any links or provide any personal data without first questioning why or doing research on whether the request is valid.
- Question whether you really NEED to provide all personal information. Ask questions—does a company truly require your Social Security Number for their records?
- Be careful what you share on social media. Though you think you are only sharing photos and details about your life with “friends”, this information is easily accessed and can be used to create a very detailed profile, leading to gathering even more personal data about you.
- Educate yourself. Understand the types of threats that are out there and what you can do to minimize your exposure.
- Demand the companies with which you do business employ secure firewalls, data encryption, and constant data monitoring. Understand with whom you are doing business and make sure they have the best security to safeguard and protect your information.
In today’s Internet-driven world, understanding who is asking for your information, why they want it, how they will protect it and how this data will be used is the first step to ensuring your personal details are safe and secure.