January 24-28th is Data Privacy Week! Given the ever evolving state of data privacy, this is a great opportunity to discuss how we can protect ourselves against data breaches and identity theft. Originally, this tradition started as a day observed on January 28th as a result of a European Council meeting on the subject in 1981. This was “an educational initiative focused on raising awareness among businesses as well as users about the importance of protecting the privacy of their personal information online, particularly in the context of social networking.” (Wikipedia)
Clearly the people who started this initiative made an extremely accurate prediction: The breadth and usage of the internet would expand rapidly and data privacy laws would fail to keep up with the times. While there have certainly been some recent advancements in data privacy laws such as GDPR it remains true that we have a long way to go before we, as a society, can consider our personal data adequately legally protected.
As users of internet services, we are all victims of the mishandling of our own personal data. We can see this mishandling in so many ways:
- Data breaches as a result of malware leading to massive swaths of personal info such as credit card and social security numbers being stolen and sold by bad actors
- Ransomware attacks that have now also turned to data extortion - threatening to leak confidential data and risk damage to company reputation, for a price. This is one of the more recent and nasty developments in the Infosec space.
- Terms of service agreements (which most of us fail to read) allowing companies to sell our data, usually to marketing agencies, so that those agencies can target us for personalized ads
- Identity theft as a result of our data being stolen or improperly handled by the many companies that have access to it
While we as individuals cannot (directly) change data privacy laws, we can certainly change our behaviors to mitigate vulnerability to any data disasters as listed above.
Considering privacy vs. convenience
Many apps and websites ask for access to different types of personal info. This can include your contacts list, geographic location, or microphone access. We would all benefit to consider the downsides of sharing our data with organizations before we click on the “allow all” button. Some questions that are valuable to ask before accepting the data request prompts on an app include:
“Is this company trustworthy?”
“Is there any real reason this app needs access to my microphone?”
“Why does this game app need GPS data from me?”
If it’s possible to use an apps’ or websites’ primary functionality without granting it additional access to other parts of your phone/computer, we recommend you do so purely to minimize how much free data they get from you. As a general rule, if the app is free, then you and your data in that app are the product.
Add protection layers to your data
There are some crucial activities we can all take to lower our risk of things like identity theft or an online account being taken over. The first one is improving our password habits, and we can do this in a few simple ways:
- Use long (18+ character) unique passwords for each account. Pass phrases can really help!
- Utilize a password manager to generate unique and strong passwords (with the benefit of not having to remember them!)
- Turn on MFA (multi-factor authentication) for any service that has it as an option
Many account “hacks” originate from leak of password data from a service. Once hackers have passwords that are associated with email accounts, they can do what is called “credential stuffing”. This is a cyberattack method in which attackers use lists of compromised user credentials to breach into other accounts that use that same email and password combination. Using MFA and unique passwords will keep you protected from this kind of attack.
Another really great option available to us is the ability to freeze our credit with all of the different credit agencies. In the U.S. there are three main credit agencies: Transunion, Equifax, and Experian. These agencies have an extraordinary amount of data on each U.S. citizen and therefore, a data breach (as we saw with Equifax in 2017) can lead to millions of people having their social security, birth date, and other information stolen. When bad actors have access to this type of personal data, they can attempt to open lines of credit (such as credit cards or loans) in your name. The best method to preventing this kind of identity theft is to freeze your credit with all of these credit agencies. Having your credit frozen will mean that any time you (or a bad actor) tries to open a new line of credit, you have to contact the credit agencies and provide them with a specific pin code and a length of time you’d like your credit freeze to be lifted. It’s a bit of a hindrance when applying for a new loan, but it is nowhere near the amount of headache and frustration you’ll go through if your identity is stolen.
Join the conversation!
Data privacy week is a time for all of us to educate ourselves on the current state of data privacy and what we can do to protect ourselves. While we definitely need more robust privacy/data legislation in the U.S. and across the world, we can all take actionable steps towards protecting ourselves in the meantime. I hope that the information I’ve provided here has helped you all recognize the steps you can take to protect your data and why we should care enough to take those steps.
We all want to take back control of our data and our online identities - that requires us to change habits and normalize this conversation. All of us could use a bit more privacy - even if it’s for, like, one second.
Do you have any data privacy tips to share with the rest of us? I’d love to hear the steps that any of you have taken to protect your data or identity! Please respond here or join the conversation with us on Twitter by tweeting us @Webroot on that platform. Can’t wait to hear your thoughts!
Very interesting! Thanks for the post. I’ve never been that convinced by GDPR, it seems to just be terminology used to scare people into more services!
I’m all on board with the intentions of GDPR, but the implementation is often SO user-hostile!
A data privacy tip: lie.
Do some of these websites really need to know your birthdate, address (unless for shipping), your first pet’s name, etc? So long as you use a trusted password manager, you can keep these lies sorted in the event you need to reset a password. In the event of a breach, your fake information cannot be used to impersonate you.
Loving the Gifs!
Also I’m not sure GDPR has brought anything to the table other than more leverage for criminals in their extortion!
I cannot speak for the younger generation (I am 61) but when I went to school, calculators were just coming into the school, and I can imagine that quite a few people I knew at school have little idea about online security. All that some people do is buy the computer connect it up to the web and think that is all they need. What is needed is more publicity to raise peoples awareness of online privacy and keeping themselves safe because right now there is precious little about Data Privacy Week that I can see around.
Interesting take on the “Is there any real reason this app needs access to my microphone?” It raises the question of the privacy rights of Alexa users. Are all conversations being recorded?
On a lighter note there is a great movie from 1974, The Conversation. Highly recommend it.
Very good written. Credit freezing is likely US only, never heard of it in the EU.
Some think: "it doesn't happen to me, who do you want my data to be interested in?".
I find an analogy between the no-vax attitude and the privacy attitude of many people.
They think that problems can only happen to others but then when they do they regret it bitterly.
I agree with those who have already written that much more information and awareness is needed.
Thanks Keenan. Normally reads like this are tough to get through but this was well written and entertaining. Thanks for sharing.
GDPR and likes of data are a huge factor that we all have to consider, whether we care about it or not.
At the end of the day, having the best security measures such as MFA/Two-Factor can save your account from data breaches more than you know it.
Even MFA can be bypassed but, it’s better than having a password only protected account..
Do your part and save your account before it’s too late!
Good read thanks.
Online safety is a tough one to teach everyone. Even those ‘in the know’ can find it hard to recognise fake emails and links.
Things are getting better though (although unfortunately mostly due to people learning from mistakes) and my 6 year old daughter is learning about online safety whilst being introduced to computers so hopefully it is now becoming something that people grow up with as we go along.
Well written article, that gives a lot to think about!
If you use the same “fake” information for authentication and verification (“Your Pets Name”, What is the third number of the last four digits of your Social Security Number?”, etc) then you are still as much at risk for having other accounts of your hijacked. While they may not be able to buy a house with your bogus information, the damage they can do is still going to be considerable.
that you also aspire to lead a quiet life, to mind your own business, and to work with your own hands, as we commanded you,
I moved to using a password manager in my personal life. Took a couple of days picking away to fully migrate everything in and then change everything to stupidly long complex pass phrases and then to clear out saved passwords and log ins from browsers. It’s a process, just a bump to get through but once it’s done, that one single password for access makes life a little easier. Also, I do not use the password manager browser extensions. Like the old joke, I’m not being paranoid, I know people are out to get me.
Thank you for sharing. The memes are a nice added touch!
We have been pretty lucky with clients calling in before they click, but we still get a couple instances a month of someone clicking a bad link in an email. So far we have been lucky with that as well and our systems catching it before anything adverse can happen.
All this tap your card/phone/watch to pay without entering a PIN is scary. Is it really that difficult to spend a few seconds punching in a few numbers for a little security? I don’t care if unauthorized purchases will be refunded. I want to prevent the unauthorized purchases from happening in the first place. This feature should never be activated by default.
Also, smart homes and personal assistants. I don’t trust them. I can flip a switch to turn on the lights.
No thanks. I’m old school. It’s safer that way.
Really good article that focus more on people than business.
I’ve seen many bad handling of personal data at past customers and i sure ain’t doing business with them as an individual.
We, as IT people, have a responsibility to educate our customers/management on these risks and matters.
Create a fake identity and use that for all the bogus sites. Don't answer online quizzes with answers that really can identify you. Better yet, don't answer the question at all. E.g. if they ask for your favorite movie, fill in a car brand.
Very useful article, privacy is critical nowadays.
Useful info and something to think about. Still feel that users will always be the weakest link and people need a constant series of training to make sure they understand the risks and impact. People can just be to complacent these days.
Great article, and in this current age, we need to always be mindful of privacy. Complex passwords are a must these days and fortunately there is a lot of password manager tools and most browsers will have this capability as part of their core functionality. Another function for those in the Apple ecosystem is the hide my email option when signing up to websites. A great way to hide your identity on those sites you won’t frequent regularly.
When all else fails Dark Web scanning for leaked credentials can give organisations some visibility in what credentials and personally identifiable information of their employees are on the web. As other posters mentioned end user training and awareness for identifying phishing scams is a great way to minimise credential leaks.
My kids are at the age when they start getting important online accounts (banking, subscriptions, etc.) When they’re going through all the security questions options (what is your pets name, your first car, your zip code, etc.) I tell them they can put anything they want for answers; they don’t have to match, just be remembered. For example, Q: What is your first car? A: Mr. Peanutbutter. Q: What is your pets name? A: Toyota Corolla.
I try to get them to NOT participate in the your _____ is your birthday and the street you live on social engineering tricks.
So far the kids are ok. They know the dangers from being on the Internet their whole life. It’s the older co-workers that are naive babes oblivious to the danger they’re strutting into.
Thanks Keenan! Nice take on an “old topic”. And the gifs were a nice distraction from something so serious. My birthday is 01/01/00, and my mothers maiden name…. Oh, you didn’t need that?