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4 Essentials for Keeping Your Personal Data Private

Photo: Courtesy of Jay Wennington

Digital data forms the foundation of contemporary life and our economy. Health, shopping, education, travel, work and fun all include extensive digital connectivity, relying on the quick, smooth flow of crucial data along trusted pathways. Maintaining trust means keeping these pathways safe and keeping data secure and private.

Sadly, today we see a shift in how consumers use the internet and rising mistrust may have chilling effects. Security researchers estimate that data breach incidents in 2015 were up 23 percent vs. the prior year. Digital ransomware has been reported as the number two cybercrime of 2015. Pew Research Center’s survey found that only 9 percent of adults say they are “very confident” their credit card data will stay private and secure. With the increased precision of social engineering, spear-phishing email and micro-targeted malvertising, consumers and their data are at risk

Of course, computers did not start identity theft, blackmail or stealing money. Criminals have been impersonating innocent people, holding valuable possessions for ransom and breaking into safes since the beginning of civilization. Today’s digitally interconnected world, however, provides increasingly fast and stealthy ways for crime to happen with ever-widening impact.

Although there will never be perfect security, there are important steps to take to be informed, prepared and better protected. Awareness is the key, recognizing that online safety is an ongoing process, rather than a one-and-done password setting—12345, anyone?

Of the many technical actions possible, perhaps the most fundamental are: protect your systems, protect your data, be skeptical of trickery and actively look for trustworthiness.

1. Update, update, update

It seems obvious, but making sure all software on all your devices is up to date with the most recent versions is among the most impactful steps you can take to protect yourself. Exploiting outdated and un-patched software versions is among the top avoidable causes of hacking success. Get and use security software on all your devices, and make sure this stays updated as well.

2. Password protect

Again, something basic but often overlooked. Passwords can be a barrier against criminals, but do not use predictable passwords and avoid password reuse. Complex passwords can be strong (never the word “password”) but it is even more critical to not use the same password for everything.

If you have many different logins to remember, consider password management software. Utilize two-factor authentication whenever possible. Think of your personal information as precious. Protect it and be careful to share only the amount necessary for the product or service you want.

3. Be skeptical of “strangers”

Social Engineering means taking advantage of ordinary attitudes, situations and customs to trick people into an action. It continues to be a major source of crime and data loss. Be skeptical of the social media “friend” whose name you don’t recognize. Look carefully at the return email address of unexpected messages. Look for the https at the beginning of a website address; the “s” stands for “secure” and is a protocol websites increasingly use to protect themselves and users. Think carefully before indiscriminately clicking on links, opening email attachments or accepting downloads from unknown sites.

4. Confirm trust

Recognized globally as a benchmark report, the 2016 Audit and Honor Roll identifies best-in-class organizations across industry sectors including retail, banking, consumer services, federal government and news media. Of 1,000 sites tested against 50-plus privacy, security and consumer protection criteria, the Honor Roll companies show outstanding leadership. The 2016 report found an all-time high of nearly 49 percent of sites qualifying for the Honor Roll. Though security and privacy practices evolve continually, sites that have qualified for the Honor Roll year over year show commitment to consumer protection.

While the risks are real and rising, the innovations and benefits of connected society can be enormous. It takes both personal responsibility and corporate stewardship to ensure appropriately safe, secure and private online experiences. We have a shared responsibility for increasing online trust.

Taking key actions—protecting yourself, being skeptical and seeking objective confirmation of best practices—bolsters online trust so that we and generations to come can enjoy the astonishing benefits of the connected world. Think before clicking. Organizations need to become stewards of consumer data and compete on privacy and security. Make a difference and vote with your mouse, choosing to frequent sites that put consumers and their data ahead of profits.

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