In these days of mobile Internet, ubiquitous Facebook and social access, it's easy to forget that the information you put online is generally visible to pretty much anyone. You may trust your friends, but you never know who is actually watching. Too many people forget that privacy online is a huge concern and that the things they post can open the door to predators, both online and off. In order to help safeguard yourself, take these eight steps.
1. Use private browsing to access sensitive information and websites. This means any time you would sign in to an important website, such as a bank or a business account, you should use your browser's private browsing window. Private browsing, also called incognito mode, does a few things to secure your privacy. It denies stored cookies and cached information, does not save passwords or usernames and masks your traffic. No one using your computer will be able to see your information, including viruses.
2. Put a passcode on your smartphone or tablet. It's highly likely that your phone contains quite a bit of valuable information, from the phone numbers of your friends and family to your business documents or even bank information. Secure that information by setting a secure passcode, potentially even using extra symbols you won't find on the standard number pad. You can also investigate apps that allow you to wipe your phone remotely, if it's stolen.
3. Use a complex password. Make sure each password for each user account on each app, website and device is unique. Yes, this is a lot to keep track of, and it can be annoying for infrequently used accounts. Still, the last thing you want is to have one of those rarely-used accounts compromised, only to lose access to your e-mail, cascading into identity theft. Avoid dictionary words, avoid direct letter substitutions and avoid short passwords.
4. Review the privacy settings on websites. If you have a registered account on a site, be careful what you post on that site. Some sites claim ownership of data posted on their networks, while others simply warn you that your data is public. For example, Facebook posts all of your information publicly unless you lock down and limit what people can see. Make these privacy tweaks to avoid anyone gaining access to information they shouldn't have.
5. Beware of public Internet access. Access points through fast food restaurants, bookstores and coffee houses are commonplace, but they aren't necessarily secure. You face a few threats on these networks. Anyone else connected to the network may be able to access your device. Even if they can't, they may expose you to a virus or malware that you aren't protected against. Some malicious users may even install traffic sniffers to monitor your actions while you use public Internet. It's best to do nothing that involves logging in through a public access point.
6. Avoid posting location information, including in unexpected ways. On one hand, checking in with FourSquare is a fun social game. On the other hand, it's a bright red flag telling a thief you're not at home, or telling a stalker where you are. When you post photos, don't forget that cameras store EXIF data, which includes date, time and location, if available. Camera phone pictures can tell someone exactly when and where you were in a given location.
7. Clear your web browsing history frequently. One of the best settings is to alter your browser to never store information in the first place. If you need to store it, clear it every week or month. For computers you use in public places, like laptops, clear it more frequently, in case of theft. The last thing you need is someone stealing your device and your identity.
8. Vanity search yourself. Visit Google and search for your name and any important unique identifiers. This will help you get an idea of where your information is posted online and how visible it is to other people. You may be surprised at what you find.
With respect to protecting yourself and your privacy, and other misuses of your personal information, there’s lots of good advice out there regarding the use of the Internet, such as:
Never give out personal information like phone numbers or physical addresses;
Refrain from providing your first name. It makes it much harder to find the individual online with only a last name.
Run your own name on these sites and see how easy it is for you to be found.
Use a PO Box as a mailing address whenever possible.
Contact each data broker and request your information be removed from their site.
At the end of the day, while all of this is useful and well intended, the only practical solution is to remove your personal information from these sites. But, that task is easier said than done.
The unfortunate reality is that removing personal information from these sites is intentionally convoluted and difficult. While it is technically possible, most people do not have the time or patience to execute each of the following steps:
Step 1 - Identify all of the more than 200 sites that compile, maintain and sell personal information, and then zero in on the 50 that can really hurt you.
Step 2 - Dig through each of the sites to locate the particular set of instructions for opting out of that site.
Step 3 - Follow each of the required processes, prepare and submit the necessary form or forms, and provide the additional information necessary (including a photo ID in some cases) to complete the opt-out request.
Step 4 – After the full set of opt-out instructions have been submitted, revisit each of the sites to verify they have complied with the opt-out request.
Step 5 – More than a step, this is an on-going process. Even after many of these sites have complied with the initial removal instructions, they will repopulate personal information over time. So, periodically (at least every 30 days), it is necessary to return to Step 1 and repeat the entire process. Protecting your personal information in an on-line world is a never ending and time consuming, but very necessary process for individual and family safety – especially today.
The important take away from today is that virtually anyone can find just about everything they might want to know about you on the internet for any purpose – targeting, stalking, bullying, revenge, embarrassment, identity theft and much more.
Activities such as cyberstalking, online bullying or just plain snooping are not going away. If anything the problem is getting worse. From solo criminals to organized gangs, the data vigilantes are everywhere, operating throughout the world. The best way to deal with this growing problem is to protect yourself by removing your information online either manually as I covered in this article or through a service like ManageYOURiD, our data privacy company. Do this for yourself and your family before it happens to you.
With these eight tips in mind, you have a much better chance of keeping yourself safe online. Make sure to learn these habits and keep yourself - and your family - safe.
About the author
Todd Drake is the founder of ManageYOURiD. ManageYOURiD is a personal privacy protection company with decades of information security and proper management of sensitive consumer data experience. The company is headquartered in Northern Virginia. Additionally, Todd has more than 25 years experience in building and running technology companies in the advanced analytics and data mining software industry and extensive data privacy experience.
In the past, Todd provided the government investigative solutions that enabled agencies to locate people, detect fraud, uncover assets, verify identity, perform due diligence and visualize complex relationships; solutions that were used by more than 3,000 agencies to help enforce laws and regulations, fight fraud, waste and abuse and provide essential citizen services.
Todd has also worked in senior capacities with organizations and major federal agencies with data-intensive mandates in areas such as intelligence, security, finance, health care, homeland security, crime and fraud prevention; and he served as a senior systems consultant for the Department of Defense and the U.S. Navy, with deployments to the Persian Gulf in support of intelligence analysis operations.
Contact Todd Drake