Apparently, today is Data Privacy Day. Despite whatever else you might read about privacy today, the answer for protecting it can be summed up in a single word: vigilance.
The reality of the modern hyperconnected world of social media and almost daily data breach information disclosures is that Data Privacy Day is every day in my world, and it should be in yours, too.
The simple truth is that every day we give up information that once was considered private. That information is given up for many reasons; sometimes it’s to gain access to a site or service, and sometimes that information is taken by way of some form of digital tracking.
Sometimes private information is willfully given out, too. Facebook, the world’s most popular social networking Website, serves as a massive public forum where lots of information that many would consider private is disclosed publicly.
While some people take the appropriate precautions and have the appropriate privacy options checked, many don’t. Does everyone with access to Facebook need to have access to your birthday? Your personal photos? Your vacation plans? Any or all of those items can be used by attackers, and without limiting the scope of access, individuals are sabotaging their own personal privacy.
If you want to help improve your own personal privacy, one simple place to start is by looking at what you’re sharing and with whom. Facebook has a robust set of privacy controls that can be confusing, but I strongly suggest that you take the time to read through even just the company’s documentation on basic privacy settings and tools.
The other area where users give their privacy away is by agreeing to unneeded permissions on mobile apps. On Android, in particular, Google now provides users with a detail screen when installing an app that explains what permissions an app is requesting. More often than not, you’ll see an app ask for access to all your contacts. While this makes sense for a phone or social networking app, it doesn’t make sense for other apps. If an app is asking for more permissions than you feel comfortable with, see if you can deny the permission, or even better, just don’t install the app.
Location awareness is another area of personal privacy that mobile phone users typically just give up. Does everyone always need to know your exact location? It’s a simple setting to not give that out and protect your own location privacy.
Then, of course, there is tracking, be it by way of cookies or other means. The desire to limit tracking has led to the rise of ad blockers, which can in a way help protect user privacy. Mozilla’s Firefox Web browser provides a built-in privacy mode with tracking protection that goes a step further, by not storing user cookies or history, while limiting the ability of sites to track users.
The Truth About Data Privacy
Users can protect themselves in a small way by employing two-factor authentication for passwords and also by limiting any potential password reuse. Some sites will ask users to let them store credit card information for better usability, but that’s not always a requirement and users can choose to just enter in card data every time, also potentially limiting risk.
Yes, I know hackers also go after user information. Pick your bogeyman—be it a nation-state (China, North Korea, Russia or even the U.S. government), phishing bots, data breaches or just data leaks. They can all affect user privacy. The use of encryption might help, but then again, it might not if you don’t know who holds the encryption keys or if the cryptography can be exploited.
While technology can and should be used to help protect data privacy, awareness is key. And the simple truth about data privacy is that it is ultimately achieved only with user vigilance.
Sean Michael Kerner is a senior editor at eWEEK and InternetNews.com. Follow him on Twitter @TechJournalist.