In the digital age, many people fear that effective data protection and maintaining one’s privacy is nearly impossible. While it’s true that marketers, the government, and others are gathering and analyzing more data than ever about every individual, we can still exert some control over what’s out there, who’s tracking us and what they can do with our information. It starts with data protection training.
The National Security Agency (NSA) has admitted that it is “capturing and analyzing metadata on every American.” Facebook and other social media outlets collect data from users’ posts, likes, and other activity for use in ad targeting. These are just two of hundreds of examples that fuel the average person’s increasing concern over privacy.
A 2016 survey indicates that 74 percent of Internet users are more worried about data protection and privacy than they were a year ago. Seventy-four percent of respondents also said they were less likely to enable location tracking on the web, while 84 percent said they are less likely to click on online ads.
When it comes to data protection training, everyone needs to get a better handle on their own data footprint—both offline and online. Experts say the key to doing this effectively is to know what your goals are and tackle the low-hanging fruit first.
Studies have shown that people are interested in reducing their footprint for three primary reasons. One is to hide from marketers. Another is protecting personal identity. The third is to protect against potential domestic violence incidents or stalkers. Some even think they are being targeted by the NSA or law enforcement, or that they’re the subject of civil proceedings. Fortunately, most people are concerned about achieving a reasonable level of privacy and data protection; complete privacy is difficult and expensive to achieve.
Data about individuals falls into three categories:
- Data that is implicitly collected, such as the many services that track browsing activity online
- Data that is explicitly collected, such as when an individual knowingly gives out their email address or other data when signing up for something online
- Publically available information that can be harvested by data collectors online, such as phone numbers and addresses, Twitter feeds, Facebook profiles, public posts and court and deed records, and so on.
The first step toward true data protection and minimizing your online footprint is to know who’s tracking you. Tools like Disconnect and Firefox’s Lightbeam add-on, which virtually show who’s tracking you as you visit different websites, can help jump-start your personal data protection training.
The second step is to figure out what the risks are that you’re trying to protect yourself from. Do you care who reads your Facebook updates or if someone you don’t know can read your emails? The more data you want to protect, the more work you will have to do.
The third layer of data protection is control, and that’s the hardest part. If you want to hide all of your Internet traffic and your identity, you would have to take a number of additional and expensive extra steps. But, as we have seen, a reasonable amount of privacy and data protection is acceptable to most.
Data Protection Training 101: 6 Steps to Minimize Your Data Footprint
1. Draw the line – Decide what’s personal. Nearly everyone considers things like health records, credit card numbers, and Social Security numbers to be personal. But the Big Data age is upon us, and data not previously thought to be personal identifying information (PII) can end up being just that. Bits of information, when combined, can tell a lot about you. Think about your email address, your browsing history and your search history when considering a broader definition of personal information.
2. Don’t share your personal information, even when asked. Are you responding to surveys by phone or online? Do you fill out warranty cards? Have you provided optional preference and demographic information when signing up for an online service? If you have, it’s possible that this type of information can end up in profiles that can be used by the collector or later shared with data integrators and others.
3. Lie about everything. Many online services demand that you divulge some information about yourself if you want to do business with them. If you don’t want to share, you can either choose to not use that service – or you can provide false information. If possible, don’t use your real birthday, email address or phone number on social networking sites, and don’t use real answers when creating answers to challenge questions. You may, of course, need a working email address to validate an account. Consider creating an account specifically for that purpose.
4. Create personal and professional personas. Think about creating and maintaining separate personal and professional profiles for browsing the web. In addition, it is recommended to use one browser for web surfing and another to log into your online accounts like Facebook, Google or Twitter to reduce cross-site tracking.
5. Understand how much you’re paying for “free” apps and online services. Think about this – the price you pay for using “free” online websites, apps and services is really measured in the amount and type of data collected about you. You need to ask: how high is the price? Understand exactly what data you are giving up and weigh that against the value of the app or service you are receiving in return. And remember, your data can easily be sold or shared.
6. Delete your unused online accounts. Almost everyone has online accounts that they no longer use. Close them down or the trail of digital relationships you’ve established on those accounts might some back to haunt you. You have no idea how the information they have about you might resurface at another point in your life.
Personal data protection in this new age that we live in is getting tougher and more complicated. Having some basic data protection training and taking simple precautions towards reducing your digital footprint can go a long way to avert serious breaches of security that were unheard of even 10 years ago.
This article was originally published in 2016 and was updated October 30, 2017.