Digital privacy under attack: What you can do to protect yourself

Does digital privacy still exist? Last year’s large number of cyberattacks and breaches exposed vulnerabilities in systems worldwide. Couple this with the problem of companies storing more user data than ever before and it’s no surprise more and more people are worried that their online secrets and crucial data are at risk in in today’s world.

As the clock rolled around to the New Year, fears were already high about increased security risks. Understandably, the headlines of Meltdown and Spectre vulnerabilities caused this anxiety to rise exponentially. Virtually every computer from the past 20 years was vulnerable, and all of your files had the potential to be exposed.

As we sped forward to make computers faster or create smarter IoT products, many companies did not commit sufficient time to security. Even experts who have dedicated their lives to cybersecurity didn’t recognize these vulnerabilities for decades.

This led many concerned users and IT workers to consider the potential of even more critical vulnerabilities in their machines and software that were previously thought to be safe. With more attacks happening and vulnerabilities being discovered regularly, it’s a fair question to ask if the concept of digital privacy is in the past.

Even with the newest, best hardware and accompanying protections, software is often made with backdoors that can clearly be exploited if found. User error, too, is nowhere close to being a thing of the past. The most secure cloud computing companies can’t protect users who misconfigure an AWS repository.

On top of all of these potential vulnerabilities, websites are logging your every move and selling this information. It seems like digital privacy is long gone. What can we do to protect ourselves?

How to protect your digital privacy

digital privacy

One thing you can do is to set a time, about once every quarter, to check out and potentially update your privacy settings, software, and security. These steps might sound simple, but the fact that they’re overlooked leads to many unnecessary vulnerabilities.

Software updates

Not properly updating your software is a major cause of vulnerabilities that are wholly unnecessary, particularly with IoT devices. The simplest fix for this is to make sure that you have automatic updates turned on. After turning this on, you should still check to make sure that all of your software is fully up to date at least once a year, as these updates sometimes are not completed automatically. Additionally, delete all of the unnecessary, old software that you don’t use anymore.

Change your passwords

There’s a reason certain websites, like bank logins, require you to change your password every six months or so. While it’s quite annoying, it helps protect your information. Additionally, make sure that you don’t use the same password for different logins.

The easiest way to keep track of all of your different keys is to download a secure password manager. They can generate new, hard-to-guess passwords for you and store them all on your phone and computer.

Use tools and applications

Applications like Signal can help you send messages and make phone calls that are encrypted. Extensions like Privacy Badger help to stop websites from tracking you. And VPNs can assist in making sure your Internet activity stays private.

On your phone, make sure to download private web browsers or add-ons. Lastly, consider using search engines like DuckDuckGo or similar privacy-focused sites instead of Google.

While these tools don’t give you complete protection, they do help.

Careful with the cloud

Google Photos gives users the amazing option to store an unlimited number of pictures, automatically downloaded from their phone to Google’s cloud; Dropbox and a number of other services also give you free space to keep many of your important files on a cloud backup.

While this is OK for certain documents that you don’t care to keep private, it is not something that you should do with any confidential files. While these large companies are generally secure, they are typically able to see all of your files.

Not only does this mean that if there is a breach of the company, your data is no longer secure, but also that your private information is not truly only shared with those who you want to see it.

Reconsider your IoT devices

digital privacy

IoT devices have frightened the cybersecurity world. Now, we have many more devices that can potentially be hacked, and many consumers don’t think that setting a secure password or regularly installing updates is important for smart devices.

Every Internet-connected device can potentially be hacked, forging a way into your main server and sensitive files. And vulnerabilities on these devices can expose more than just your files. There have been multiple instances of nanny cams getting hacked, for example, allowing the infiltrators to see everything on the camera.

Many IoT devices can bring great convenience, but it’s important to protect yourself. Only use the devices that are necessary, change the password to something more secure, and always install the updates.

Opt out of data brokers

There are hundreds of data brokers that compile lists of people. This can be dangerous, like when many feared that President Donald Trump might build a Muslim registry. Although many tech workers stated that they wouldn’t assist in building this database, only three data brokers signed a similar pledge.

Julia Angwin, senior reporter at ProPublica, compiled a list of data broker opt-outs to help users reclaim their personal data. Although many of them require pictures of your photo ID or for you to write a letter, it’s well worth it.

Digital privacy today

The world that we are in today is facing threats from every side: user error, software being pushed out without proper testing, computers, and systems being attacked more frequently than ever before, companies that take and sell our private information, and more.

While it is impossible to stay completely protected on your computer or online, there are many steps that you can take to make yourself safer and to ensure that your files and digital privacy stay private.

Photo credit: Shutterstock

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