The scary truth about personal data

Given the frightening nature of personal data privacy and protection, it’s only fitting that October is also National Cyber Security Awareness Month. What better time to learn the facts and take steps to protect yourself and your data?

Google Knows More Than You Think

You might think your spouse or intimate partner knows you best, but what about the world’s most popular search engine, and arguably the most powerful corporation in the world? Google knows more about you than you think, and your search history is just the beginning.

Google operates on a massive scale, and the company relies on the information it collects to support its advertising platform. This data collection may be legal, but it can also become a bit obtrusive. With location settings on cell phones, one of your social media “friends” could see your location without your knowledge, so pay special attention to your privacy settings and know what you are sharing.

Which Advertisers Are Targeting You On Facebook?

There is an old saying in the tech world that when the service is free, you are the product, and that is certainly true in the case of Facebook and other social media companies. Facebook is funded through its ads, and their advertisers rely on statistical algorithms and user data to target and reach the right audience.

At its core, Facebook is an advertising company, but users can learn what the company knows about them and control how much information is shared. If you want to see which advertisers have uploaded your contact information, go to Settings > Account Settings > Ads > Advertisers You’ve Interacted With. Then look for a section called “Advertisers who uploaded a contact list with your info”. When you click “see all”, you’ll likely see a long list populated with hundreds of advertisers you are both familiar with and have never heard of. How did they get your info? We’ll get to that shortly.

If you are uncomfortable with others sharing your data on Facebook, go back to Settings > General Settings > Ads. Then scroll through each of the ad sections, click Edit and change the setting to “No one”. This will take some time, but your privacy will be worth it.

Location Data Was Used to Set Up Speed Traps

The next time you’re running late, you might want to think twice before speeding, especially if you have an iPhone in your pocket. Location data not only reveals to advertisers and “third parties”, your exact location at any given time, but also the speed at which you are going.  The location data that makes the iPhone so useful can also be used to track your speed and location. Those two interrelated pieces of data are all that is needed to set a speed trap. GPS maker TomTom did just that, selling the data they collected to police in the Netherlands.

Acxiom Collects 1,500 Data Points Per Person

Acxiom may not be a household name, but the company has already amassed a massive database, one that touches almost every American consumer. Given the enormous amount of information Acxiom has already amassed, it may be surprising that the firm wants to know even more.

With an ability to process more than 50 million separate data transactions every year and data on more than 500 million consumers around the world, Acxiom collects 1,500 data points per individual. It is important to understand that this kind of data collection is the way numerous advertisers and websites gain access to your data.

Don’t Expect Government Intervention

Given the nature of data privacy and the threats to its protection, you might expect government intervention, but unfortunately, it doesn’t appear this is very likely.

In fact, governmental regulations are currently moving in the other direction. Rather than cracking down on data privacy violations and urging an increase in consumer protections, the government has lightened the regulatory load on businesses.

There is currently no political will in Congress for additional regulations, and consumers cannot rely on legislators to protect their data. Instead, consumers concerned about privacy and data protection need to take a proactive approach.

How to Protect Yourself and Your Data

From freezing your credit to taking advantage of monitoring services and changing your privacy settings, there are things you can do to protect your personal data and stop it from falling into the wrong hands.

The recent Equifax data breach should be a wake-up call to everyone, since nearly every adult in the United States was involved in the data leakage. Here are some additional ways to protect your data and privacy.

  • Update your security software – Your antivirus and security software is only as good as its last update, so keep it up-to-date.
  • Turn on automatic updates – It’s easy to forget about software updates, so make sure they’re set to automatic.
  • Protect all your devices – That phone in your pocket is more than a calling device; it is a tiny computer, and it deserves the same protection you give your laptop or desktop.
  • Scan your USB devices – Plugging an infected USB stick into your computer could put your entire network at risk, so scan it before you open any files.
  • Use strong passwords – Using a common word as your password is just asking for trouble, so avoid common password mistakes and use a sentence instead with special characters, upper case, and lower letters.
  • Create unique account names and passwords – It’s best practice to have a separate user ID and password for every site you visit; you can track it all with a quality password manager.

The nature of the tech world creates some unique challenges for users, but there are ways to protect yourself. From changing your Facebook settings to keeping your security software up to date, a few simple changes can enhance your privacy and protect your personal data.

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