Staff Columnist

Resolve to protect your data in 2019

Three easy, low-tech ways to check on your digital footprint

A man holds an Apple iPhone as he walks on a street in New York, U.S., August 1, 2018.  REUTERS/Lucas Jackson
A man holds an Apple iPhone as he walks on a street in New York, U.S., August 1, 2018. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

Here’s a suggestion for a resolution in 2019 — adjust your tinfoil hat and audit your digital privacy.

When I publish columns about government surveillance and corporate data harvesting, readers often ask me what they can do to protect themselves, but I am never quite sure how to respond. The challenge is so large that it’s hard to know where to start.

It is an intimidating task because it is impossible to understand all of the potential risks. No matter how careful we are with our private information, there will always be unforeseen threats. Many Americans also suffer from “security fatigue,” tuning out the endless warnings because it’s so difficult to keep up.

Those dynamics are at play in all sectors of security, from the personal and home levels all the way up to national and global security. But even though you can’t predict how neighborhood burglars might strike next, you still have locks on the doors of your house. You will never fully eliminate all the risks, but you can mitigate them.

Maybe you’re not a computer whiz, but there are some simple, low-tech projects you can take on to limit your exposure to digital creeps in 2019.

• Pay with cash. Corporate data breaches involving customer payment information have become so common that they are only minor news stories nowadays. And those are only the ones we know about. There likely are many other leaks that companies either don’t detect or don’t disclose.

The most effective way to protect your payment information is to use an untraceable method — good old-fashioned legal tender. Debit cards and credit cards offer convenience in many situations, and you don’t have to get rid of them altogether, but every time you opt to use cash instead of card, you reduce your risk.

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• Check which apps have access to your mobile data. Many apps on smartphones and tablets require users to grant access to certain data or functions on the device. Some apps need that access to work correctly — like camera access for Snapchat, or location access for navigation tools — but some apps collect your data and store it even when they’re not using it.

Both Android and iOS have menus to show how much data each app is using, and which permissions the apps have. A great place to start is to delete apps you don’t use, and closely scrutinize the ones using large amounts of data. Another good idea is to revoke access to your location data from apps that don’t need it.

• See what the big technology companies think they know about you. Companies track your digital footprints so they can sell you stuff. Sometimes that’s helpful, empowering us to find products better suited to our needs and interests, but sometimes that data is sold or leaked to entities we don’t want to have it.

Many major online service providers allow users to see the list of interests and purchasing habits the companies have assigned to us, or download our whole data sets (Google, Twitter, Amazon, Facebook). Some websites allow you to turn off personalized ads. While this will not stop websites from storing your data, it will give you a better idea of what the tech companies are collecting. Knowing is half the battle.

• Comments: (319) 339-3156; adam.sullivan@thegazette.com

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