The internet has become inextricable from most modern lives. Everything from what we buy and watch to our home security and even our basic appliances have been entrusted to the internet. There is a huge amount of data on all of us available to those who know where to look.
National Data Privacy Day is today, Jan. 28. As a private investigator with over 33 years of experience, I’d like to share a few tips on how individuals can protect their privacy online. While it is unlikely that a private investigator will ever be looking for you, securing your data and privacy online is always in your best interest.
Keep tabs on Google. Like many things on the internet, securing your data can begin with a google search. Search for yourself to see what kind of information is available. Run several searches, including for all your name variations such as nicknames and maiden/married names. Also search all your known social media handles and avatars — even those from inactive or deleted accounts. Make sure to run your name in “quotes” and familiarize yourself with some google search term connectors to get the most out of your searches.
Reclaim your information. If you find your personal information on a website that claims to have a “background check” on you — contact that website (look for their contact page) to begin the process of removing your information. Many of these websites look intimidating but they are a little bit like modern day White Pages — they display your information because they have it available to them — but you can opt out of being listed in their databases by contacting them and requesting to be removed.
Stop using your email to sign up for discounts. Create a new and separate email account for those services. Never use that email address for your online banking or other financial transactions. Get a password manager to help you manage and remember your passwords to different accounts.
Keep tabs on your credentials. Credentials are your usernames, email addresses, passwords used to access digital services and apps. Often we use the same ones for several services – because who can remember 50 different log-on combinations? However, when a company is compromised by hacking, the credentials you used become exposed. If you use the same credential for many services, you increase the odds of someone gaining access to your sensitive data. Check “Have I Been Pwned” to see if you’ve ever had any of your data compromised. Update your passwords regularly even if you’re not made aware of any security breach. (Breaches and hacks can go unnoticed for months and even years)
Use an encrypted application for messaging. Apps like WhatsApp and Signal make it difficult for a third-party to gain access to your private messages.
Do not use public WiFi or hotspots. While convenient, this makes it incredibly easy for hackers to gain access to your information. Some hackers just sit in coffee shops and public places like train stations all day collecting private information. Some can even drop a device in a hidden spot to collect information and send it back.
Choose your apps wisely. Does a game on your phone want access to your messages, media and phonebook before it lets you play? This may be necessary to send you notifications or help you play with friends — but when you allow apps access to that information, you don’t get to decide what they do with it, so think carefully before you download a new app. Pick ones from reputable companies that require minimal permissions. Understand that apps such as the Weather Channel, Weather Forecast and WeatherBug sell user data. One popular app — Adware Doctor — even sent user data to China.
The process of completely securing our personal information goes far beyond these basic tips — and the questions regarding who has access to our data cannot be addressed in a single day but it’s a start.