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Just a few decades ago, data meant something entirely different than what it means today. Data was the reams of printed numbers the beardy and bespectacled movie scientist pored over before advising the president a zombie outbreak was inevitable.
Regular folks didn’t use or need data.
Today, your typical adult carries reams of virtual and physical data with them like a giant invisible fingerprint. Everything from your social security number right down to your blood type, religious and political affiliations, and online browsing habits form the “big data” of our lives. Moreover, each morsel can be gleaned, bought and sold, often while you’re none the wiser.
The impact of data on our lives is very real indeed in 2019. It’s as significant to our futures as weather patterns, the price of gold, and global superpowers jostling for natural resources.
So, how do you keep your precious personal data safe? Here are seven key strategies.
1. Don’t Neglect Physical Security
Let’s start with the depressingly obvious.
While personal data is digital, it’s also physical! Enterprises from Damsel in Defense through to your run-of-the-mill local security firms all thrive in the business of keeping your body and property safe.
But what can you do when it comes to data?
While there’s plenty you could do, professional security advisers point to two simple and effective physical data protection strategies every person should put into practice.
First, lock away your key documents. Investing in an inexpensive home safe is a great first step to keeping your passports, property deeds, and any other important official documents safely away from prying eyes.
Second, make sure your mailbox has a secure lock and clear it promptly. If you’re traveling, get a trusted person to collect your mail as close to daily as practicable. These two simple strategies will greatly reduce your risk of experiencing data theft.
2. Don’t Overshare on the Phone
Another frequently overlooked vulnerability is your phone. Countless scams revolve around the same simple yet dirty trick.
- Call the unsuspecting victim while they are off guard (elderly people are particularly sought after marks).
- Introduce a sense of urgency. For example, the scammer may try to convince their marks that they are at risk of a computer virus infection or an aggressive IRS audit.
- Collect a vital piece of data they can exploit. This may be something obvious like credit card and bank account details. They may be fishing for something more subtle, like your birth date, social security number or personal information they could use to unlock services in your name.
The antidote is simple. Only share data when you’re positive you’re speaking with a legitimate company representative. If in doubt, hang up and call them back.
Moreover, even if a legitimate company is asking for certain data, you’re entitled to ask them why. If their answer seems flimsy, you have the option to refuse the data they are requesting.
3. Don’t Overshare on Social Media
Social media is public. Be careful about the data you share on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or any other social media channel of choice. Be particularly wary to share your birth date and your physical movements.
Moreover, take time to educate yourself about your social media service’s privacy settings. Remember, it’s in the interest of many social media services to make your data as available as possible.
The default settings may not be the most secure option available to you.
4. Be Password Savvy
Good password practice has three moving parts.
First, never write your password down (including virtually) in a place where it can simply be retrieved and used. Keep your passwords stored securely in a dedicated password-encryption service.
Secondly, don’t just use one password. Ideally, you should use a separate password for every online service you use. If that is too difficult, at least be sure that all your most data-sensitive services (think banks, medical service providers, and subscription services) are protected behind unique passwords.
Finally, use a string that is unique, hard to guess and relatively long. Yes, this is a drag! But an eight-character password can be brute-forced in seconds. A twelve-character password requires years to crack.
5. Keep Wi-Fi Hotspot Access to a Minimum
It may be convenient to use free Wi-Fi while you’re out and about, but it’s not the safest practice. As a general rule, it’s wise to keep your activities on an open Wi-Fi network to a minimum.
Absolutely avoid banking, purchases and the exchange of sensitive information through a free Wi-Fi hotspot. All this information can be viewed and stored by potentially malicious actors on the same network.
Remember, public Wi-Fi is not necessarily private.
6. Read the Fine Print
It often surprises people to learn that they’ve actively given permission for people to use, share and even sell your personal data.
The culprit? The infamous fine print.
While in the vast majority of cases you’ve little to worry about, some companies push the boundaries of privacy, and you may wish to think carefully before giving your consent.
If in doubt, take a step back and be sure you understand the data implications before signing any agreement.
7. One Crucial Mind Hack
And finally, here’s something intangible but nevertheless crucial in keeping you and your data safe.
Practice asking questions!
Many people (particularly those unaccustomed to the internet and social media) assume that the online world is largely benevolent and “managed” by people who probably have all these important data issues well under control. In short, they assume that someone else out there is keeping the Internet more or less safe.
If you or someone you care about has this impression, it’s important to shift that perception.
Think of the Internet marketplace as a crowded mall filled with strangers. Most will be innocently going about their business. A few will be looking for an easy way to make money at your expense.
Keep that in mind and it becomes a lot easier to make smart decisions about who to trust, and how to manage your personal data.
Stay safe out there!