Taking Control of Your Online Personal Data

We live in a world where privacy has become much harder to achieve due to social networks, online public records, and various marketing strategies that pull together consumer data for companies to use in its sales efforts. While this offers us the ability to stay in touch with those that live far away, search for contacts and job opportunities conveniently and browse and shop without leaving our houses, the trade off is that our persidentonal data could be misused.

What is Personal Data?

Personal data is defined as information relating to an identified or identifiable individual. It involves an identifiable person or people who can be identified directly or indirectly. This could involve referencing to an identification number or any physical, physiological, mental, economic, cultural or social identity, such as a name, date of birth, DNA, fingerprints, or a number of other factors.

The Challenge of Privacy in the Big Data World

We live in a big data world. This means that analytical techniques are used to search, compile, and cross-reference large data sets in order to come up with insights about consumers. This intelligence is then sold in a variety of ways, such as targeted ads (Google, Facebook), mailing and phone lists. These large data sets range from public information to internal customer data that comes from companies. This means that people need to be more vigilant than ever if they want to protect their privacy. As new methods of collecting large data sets are uncovered, so must people continue to inform themselves and adapt.

Ways Personal Data is Shared

People are sharing their personal data without being conscious of it every day. Using a loyalty card at a supermarket allows the store to gather data about how you shop. Online surveys and quizzes that are marketed as fun work distractions collect personal demographics from participants. If you search online for a specific item, the data of your search is collected and often immediately sold to other vendors who carry the item or related items. Information you post on social media is also shared. The latest information ties Google’s Alexa device and cell phone carriers with listening to people and pulling data from voice interactions. Even robo-calls people receive aim to collect data.

The Danger of Free Use of Personal Information

The process of collecting and sharing data can be highly annoying, but it also becomes dangerous once sensitive information, such as names, Social Security numbers, credit card or account numbers are shared. This type of data is used for identity theft and other fraudulent activities when it falls into the wrong hands. Large companies share security and privacy policies with their customers, and take precautions to protect sensitive information, but data breaches still occur regularly.

The Who, What & Why of Data Collection and Processing

To better understand how data is collected and used, here is a breakdown:

Who is collecting data:

Various businesses collect customer data needed to set up and maintain customer accounts and run operations. They collect demographics, names, unique identifying information life social security numbers and dates of birth, but also data pertaining to money spent, products or services purchased, data pertaining to how and when purchases are made, payment information and much more.

What is being done with the data:

The data is used to uniquely identify a customer and to provide security verification when accessing an account. The data is also used to fulfill the orders, conduct customer service and receive payment. Additionally, companies use this data to gain more insight into customers in order to target them more efficiently with marketing. Going one step further, they are sharing this data with other businesses so that those organizations can also market to people in a more targeted way. The companies then may utilize online banner ads that are targeted to the specific interests of the person, targeted direct mail, and calls. They also are likely to pass the info they purchased further and resell to other businesses.

Why data is being handled like this:

Using data in this way is highly financially lucrative. Companies no longer need to conduct expensive and time consuming customer surveys that produce vague results, because they can access much more accurate, real time data. It is also proven to be a very effective marketing tactic that leads to sales.

Steps to Take Control of Your Personal Data

Step 1: Review the privacy settings on all your social media accounts. Re-review them often. Set the strictest guidelines that prevent your information being shared. Utilize strong passwords on all accounts and change them often.

Step 2: Do not use free, unsecured wi-fi. Your online activity information is not well protected unless you use a secure, closed network.

Step 3: Surf the web anonymously, using proxy services and virtual private networks (VPNs). This will prevent sites using third party or their own cookies to track your browsing activities.

Step 4: Only provide the information that is required. For example, if you are shopping at a store, they often ask for your email at check out, but this is not required to complete the transaction. Skip this step to prevent unnecessary email marketing, or your email address being shared with other businesses.

Step 5: Review the privacy policies for the companies you utilize. These are lengthy legal docs, but a review could uncover practices that you may not agree with and then you exercise the option of choosing not to do business with said business.

Step 6:  Stay abreast of new data mining and sharing practices. Read articles about the newest strategies being used in this arena. These are constantly changing, and you can only stay ahead of them if you know what is going on.

It can seem like a scary world when it comes to big data. Luckily, customers have access to important protections, and can take steps to reduce risk.

Author: Ben Hartwig
Ben is a Digital Overlord and Chief Security Officer at InfoTracer who takes a wide view from the whole system. He authors guides on entire security posture, both physical and cyber. Enjoys sharing the best practices and does it the right way!