Your Digital Privacy is Important — Here’s How to Protect It
Digital privacy 101
Digital privacy is important, but unfortunately, it’s not the default.
If you want to maintain your privacy when you go online, you have to take an active role in safeguarding your data and personal information. The best way to preserve your privacy is to stay informed and up-to-date on potential risks and best practices and to implement safety precautions for all your devices and accounts.
Want to learn more about protecting your personal information when you use the Internet? Here are the digital privacy basics you should know about.
What is digital privacy?
Our lives are more digital than ever, and this comes with its benefits and pitfalls.
While technological advancements mean more convenience and connectivity, they’re also causing increasing privacy concerns as online platforms and businesses gather, exchange, sell, and leak personal data.
Digital privacy, also known as data privacy or information privacy, refers to an individual’s autonomy over how their personal information is collected and used when they go online. Boiled down in this way, it sounds simple — but it’s actually an increasingly complex concept as technology and data collection evolve. In theory, all internet users should have control over how they share their personal information and who can access that information, but unfortunately, this isn’t the case.
People often trade their data for convenience, whether that means inputting their credit card information to get food delivered from a local restaurant or providing their name and email address to access a website. These types of decisions aren’t inherently dangerous, but because the US lacks federal laws that regulate how websites use consumer data, it can be difficult to determine how a business will use or share your data. Although there are some state laws protecting digital privacy, it’s unclear what federal legislation would look like or when it might be passed, and so the task of ensuring online privacy falls primarily on individual Internet users.
How the pandemic has affected digital privacy
Because the COVID-19 pandemic moved more of our lives online than ever before, it has had a significant impact on digital privacy.
In order to comply with lockdown policies and stay safe, many of us turned to grocery and food delivery services, online shopping, virtual communication apps, and telehealth providers in 2020, giving away more of our personal and financial data online than ever before.
Many websites sell user data to third parties who aggregate that data for advertising, and a statistical analysis of the pandemic’s impact on privacy determined that third-party data sharing increased over the course of the pandemic as more people relied on the Internet to go about their daily lives. Because the pandemic caused a sudden increase in Internet reliance without accompanying privacy regulations to protect consumer data, there has been an increase in digital privacy concerns for more people than ever before.
Why is digital privacy important?
Most of us share a lot of personal information on the Internet — maybe even more than we realize.
We bank and shop online, using our credit cards to order takeout or pay rent. We attend telehealth appointments and access digital versions of our medical records. We post about our lives on social media and use our email addresses to access sites across the web.
Likely, you want to control who has access to your financial, medical, and personal information. These aren’t the type of details you would openly share in face-to-face interactions; however, if you’ve shared or accessed this data online in any format, then you don’t necessarily have control over who can see it unless you take an active role in maintaining your digital privacy. In order to protect yourself from having your personal information sold to unknown third parties or your financial information stolen by cyber criminals, it’s important to do what you can to protect your data whenever you go online.
Biggest online privacy threats
According to data collected by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, almost three-fourths of Internet-using US households have significant concerns about their digital privacy and security. As the Internet has evolved, so too has cyber risk, which is why it’s important to stay up-to-date on what threatens your privacy online.
Following are some of the biggest digital privacy threats facing individuals right now:
- Phishing emails are actually the most common invasion of internet privacy. These are fraudulent messages in which cyber criminals pose as legitimate businesses in order to trick people into sending their private data like banking and credit card details, personal information, or passwords.
- Ad tracking is the now-common practice of websites gathering personal data from consumers in order to sell that data to advertisers and create targeted ads. Services that many people use every day, including Google and Facebook, track what users do on their own sites and across the Web.
- Data breaches happen when unauthorized users hack into a business’s database and steal consumers’ sensitive or confidential information, which they use for identity fraud or similar purposes. These types of attacks have been increasing in frequency, and because they target businesses, they’re difficult for individuals to protect themselves against without adding extra layers of account protection like biometric authentication and decentralized data storage.
How to protect your digital privacy
Taking steps to protect your digital privacy isn’t complicated, and some simple changes to your accounts and devices can go a long way toward mitigating cyber risk and keeping your personal information private.
If you want to take an active role in safeguarding your data from unwanted access, these are a few easy ways to increase your cyber safety and privacy.
Guard your passwords
We’ve heard the advice: never use weak passwords and never reuse passwords. But with so many websites requiring passwords these days, it’s appealing to ignore this rule and use easy-to-remember passwords and to use the same passwords across multiple accounts. It’s also tempting to auto-save passwords on your devices so that you never have to remember them at all.
But the truth is that weak passwords make it easy for cyber criminals to break into your accounts, giving them access to your personal, financial, or medical data. You may think you have accounts that aren’t valuable or high-profile enough to attract attention, but many hackers use automated tools to locate the low-hanging fruit of weak passwords to access whichever accounts happen to be easiest to get into. Once a bad actor infiltrates one account, it’s easier for them to then access your other accounts, any of which may contain your credit card information or other sensitive data.
This is especially true if you reuse passwords across accounts, which can make it all too simple for cyber criminals to accumulate your private data and hack into your accounts and devices. If a device on which you’ve saved your passwords is remotely or physically accessed without your consent, then a hacker can access your saved passwords and all connected accounts, which could quickly compromise financial or sensitive information.
Password managers offer a common solution to the problem of password vulnerability. These paid services generate strong and unique passwords for all of your accounts and store them in one location. They’re better than nothing — and they’re certainly better than weak or reused passwords — but they’re not a perfect fix. Password managers can and have been hacked, and if your devices have been infected by malware (like through a phishing email), then cyber criminals may be able to access your master password and thus access all of your accounts.
Two-factor authentication (2FA) and multi-factor authentication (MFA) offer an added layer of security on accounts and password managers, typically by sending an SMS to verify a user’s identity before they access a site. Again, this is better than nothing, but it’s not perfect. Increasingly, cyber criminals are committing SIM swapping fraud in which they trick mobile carriers into switching a victim’s mobile number to a SIM card in the criminal’s possession, thus gaining the ability to bypass 2FA and MFA protections.
Biometric authentication is currently the most secure way to protect your passwords as well as your financial and personal data. This type of authentication uses biometrics, like fingerprint or facial scanning, to verify your identity before you access your accounts. As you can guess, this is more secure than alphanumeric passwords, 2FA/MFA, and password managers.
Decentralized storage is the safest way to save your information online, especially compared to saving passwords and credit card information in your browser. Services that offer decentralized storage basically split your data into encrypted fragments and store those fragments across multiple locations.
Beware of phishing
Phishing refers to attackers sending fraudulent messages, usually via email, designed to trick people into disclosing private information such as login credentials, credit card details, or other sensitive data. These fake messages can be extremely convincing, and the attackers will often use fake email addresses that are very similar to legitimate ones.
It’s good to exercise caution and to generally avoid entering login credentials or financial info on sites linked in emails, but it’s better to put safeguards in place in case anything bad does happen, especially as phishing attacks grow more advanced.
Again, biometrics offer strong protection. If you’re the victim of a phishing attack but you have biometric authentication in place on your accounts, then it’s much harder for a criminal to gain access to your data, whereas strong passwords and 2FA aren’t necessarily enough protection to fend off a phishing attack.
Always update your devices
This is a simple one: stay up-to-date on device, browser, and app updates. Often, software updates either address vulnerabilities from previous versions or include improved antivirus protections. Sometimes, they respond to a specific cyber risk that’s been exploited or in danger of being exploited by bad actors, which is why it’s critical to stay up-to-date. Plus, keeping software updated is usually more effective at thwarting attackers than antivirus software — and it’s free.
Ideally, turn on automatic updates for all devices and programs that allow them. Otherwise, keep an eye out for available software updates, and update as soon as they become available.
Stay up-to-date on data breaches
Data breaches are happening more and more frequently, but businesses don’t always alert users when their data has been leaked. That’s why it’s important to keep up with the news around data breaches, which can affect companies of all sizes and can lead to the disclosure of individuals’ personal, financial, or medical information.
If you have been involved or think you’ve been involved in a data breach, you should take action immediately. This resource from the Federal Trade Commission offers useful advice on responding to different types of data breaches. Change your passwords, check your bank accounts and credit reports, and enact security measures like biometric or multifactor authentication (if you haven’t already).
Taking an active role in your digital privacy means staying informed and being both proactive and reactive in protecting your data. Any steps you can take toward protecting your privacy online are well worth it.