With 2019 on the way out and the promise of 2020 ahead, it’s time to take a good, hard look at our digital identity. That means personal data, consumer information, financial details, social media presence, passwords, and more—the whole online package.
Taking such a high-level view of our Internet activity seems daunting. But the alternative is equally frightening: we all know that our internet-connected devices track our every movement, often sharing (and even selling) that confidential information with advertisers and big tech companies.
So What Can the Average Online User Do to Take Back Some Control of His or Her Digital Life?
With the new year nearly upon us, CMIT Solutions recommends these five strategies, each broken up into easily actionable items:
The anecdotes are chilling: our cars transmit data about every location we visit. If you search for a product online, you’ll start seeing ads for it everywhere. And the rise of devices like smart speakers, smart thermostats, and smart home security systems has created a new boom in private information being transmitted around the internet. But this dark side of digital data collection has a silver lining: in many cases, you get to choose exactly how much information you share, even if privacy protection is a never-ending game of cat and mouse that calls for 24/7 vigilance.
- Consider opting out of advertiser tracking with large platforms like Google, Amazon, Microsoft, and Apple. A wide variety of browser plug-ins and online tools can help reduce the collection of your consumer data and the micro-targeting so many of us are used to.
- Turn off Location Services on your mobile device. Every app you use will try to log and track your location—only use it when necessary and turn it off when you can.
- Be smart about your choice of web browser. The non-profit Mozilla Firefox is currently the gold standard when it comes to default data protection, while Apple Safari offers a basic level of reduced surveillance compared to Google Chrome and Microsoft Edge or Internet Explorer.
We all know that Google and Facebook collect untold amounts of our personal data. And we all know that the websites we visit drop digital cookies onto our computers that then follow our Internet activity. But what can we do about it?
- Don’t use public Wi-Fi networks. Instead, consider using the protected hotspot on your phone, or a virtual private network (VPN) that encrypts all the data you send and receive.
- Log in to each of your accounts, apps, and platforms with a unique password. In other words, avoid the “Sign in with Facebook” or “Sign in with Google” shortcuts, which allow those companies to track you even when you’re using other sites.
- Understand the ins and outs of data privacy laws. The European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation and California’s Consumer Privacy Act aren’t perfect, but they should raise the bar on data protection worldwide.
From long-winded emails to revealing private messages to overblown social media posts, we’ve all violated online etiquette rules at one time or another. The key is what we do moving forward to make amends for those mistakes.
- It takes only seconds for online acquaintances to judge our trustworthiness. And it’s often based on nothing more than a profile picture, an age, a location, and a political affiliation. That’s why it’s so important to learn how to engage in productive, even-handed discussions—in real life and on the Internet.
- Email is often the first point of introduction. So work on writing clear, concise, and succinct messages that get to the point, invite further conversation, and end with sincerity, not schmaltz (i.e., “Best” or “Warmly” are fine—inspirational quotes, not so much).
- Beware of direct messages. These can encourage a much more familiar manner of conversation while opening us up to a host of infallibilities—first and foremost, assume that even the most private message could one day be made public.
This can start small—say, backing up thousands of smartphone pictures to a hard drive to clear space on your mobile device, or organizing the files on your desktop to match those on your laptop. But don’t be afraid to go deeper in the new year.
- First, make sure you’re performing regular, remote, and redundant data backups. These daily maintenance tasks go a long way toward long-term protection, creating multiple copies of your information you can access in case of disaster.
- Next, work with a trusted IT provider to assess the health of your systems. Microsoft, Apple, and Google all offer easy ways to cut through the digital clutter on your desktops, laptops, and mobile devices. And if you do need new computers, servers, or printers, it’s better to know early and have time to make a plan.
- Finally, check on software updates and security patches. These are easy to dismiss, especially when we’re busy, but failing to install an important one can lead to system bugs, malware vulnerabilities, and bigger problems down the road.
Wearable technology and fitness apps geared to every form of physical activity have been a boon to exercise enthusiasts—and tech companies looking for new ways to collect data on their users. Most employer-sponsored health plans offer wellness incentives that deliver discounts in exchange for hitting benchmarks verified by those devices but don’t just jump into such programs without doing due diligence about the exchange of your health information.
- Understand the limits of HIPAA, which keeps some of your healthcare data private. When it comes to doctor visits, pharmacy purchases, and procedural history, you’re mostly protected by HIPAA, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act.
- Be wary of the term “HIPAA-compliant.” It’s just vague enough to preclude actual regulation and enforcement under the act’s guidelines.
- Use caution with wearable devices. If your employer or insurance company provides these, they may be covered by HIPAA. If not, the data they collect can be shared with your employer, your insurance company, external advertising firms—even, in some extreme cases, law enforcement.
- If your data is breached, act decisively. Between 2009 and 2019, 71% of all reported data breaches at hospitals compromised sensitive information like addresses, credit card information, and Social Security numbers. One of HIPAA’s strongest bylaws is the requirement that any breach must be reported, so if you find out your information has been shared, act quickly to protect it—consider a credit freeze, a password audit, and heightened analysis of your bank accounts—and avoid identity theft or financial fraud.
Whew—That’s a Lot of Steps to Assess Our Digital Identity
But what better time to do it than a new year, a new decade, and a new opportunity to rethink how we share our online information?
At CMIT Solutions, we understand the importance of technology, and we work hard to leverage it for sustained business success. Want to enhance your digital identity and take a serious look at your data health? Contact us today.
We help clients defend their data, protect their devices, and work smarter, not harder to meet the needs of today’s rapidly changing online world.