Data Privacy Day: Safeguard Your Data

·6 min read

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It’s time to take stock of your private information.

Today is Data Privacy Day, which marks the 1981 signing of Europe’s Convention 108, the first legally binding international treaty involving privacy and data protection. But, more importantly, it’s a reminder that protecting your personal data is vital.

Just like checking the tire pressure and oil in your car, taking care of digital privacy is a task that requires ongoing maintenance.

As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, almost everyone is spending more time online these days, for work, school, and family gatherings over Zoom. And, experts say, that has put a lot more personal information at risk of being mined by both hackers and data brokers.

Consumers are worried, too. According to Cisco’s 2020 Consumer Privacy Study, conducted last summer, 87 percent of the people surveyed expressed some level of concern about the privacy protections offered by the tools they use to work, interact, and connect remotely.

Kelvin Coleman, executive director of the National Cyber Security Alliance, points to the soaring use of telehealth services as a prime example of how more and more consumer data is moving online. Though consumers stand to benefit from the technology, he says, it also creates a tempting target for cybercriminals.

Meanwhile, threats like data breaches, phishing, and malware attacks still loom. And consumer data continues to be collected by a host of products and services; everything from smart home devices to social media platforms to internet service providers.

And that’s why it's important to take a little time to review and update your privacy protections, Coleman says.

“COVID is the big driver right now, but data privacy is data privacy,” he explains. “These public service announcements aren’t terribly exciting or sexy, but they are needed.”

Here are a few easy ways to safeguard your privacy, including links to other Consumer Reports resources.

Ask questions. Whether it’s a major social media provider or the startup that monitors your video doorbell, you need to be asking questions: What data is being collected? How is it secured? And how long does the company plan to keep it around?

Though you might not be legally entitled to the answers, thanks to heightened scrutiny from lawmakers and others, many companies are getting accustomed to fielding those questions and may provide the answers.

Keep work and play separate. If you’re working from home, it can be tempting to use your work laptop as your go-to device. But blending the private and professional spheres of your life can put both at risk.

When people work from home, they just don’t keep their guard up as much. They often don't get the same help and protection from the IT department, as well. That has a lot of companies worried right now, Coleman says.

On the flip side, many companies use spyware to keep an eye on employees. Do you really want your boss knowing what you do online on your own time?

Audit your log-ins. It’s awfully tempting to use Facebook or Google to automatically log in to the sea of apps and websites you engage with. But every time you go that route, you’re giving Facebook and Google access to more data.

And long after you’ve forgotten about those seemingly innocuous accounts, they have access to any personal information you agreed to share when you signed up.

So think twice before using those log-ins. And if you no longer use an app or a site linked to your Facebook and Google accounts, delete the connection and stop sharing your info.

Guard your info. Lock down your social media accounts to make sure your posts are restricted to people you know. Facebook has a privacy checkup tool to help with this. And even then, think before you post. People don’t need to know everything about you.

If you want to see exactly what Facebook knows about you, you can download your entire history. It takes just a few minutes. Google has a similar option. Or if you’ve decided that you’re done with social media, you can quit Facebook and other accounts and delete all your data.

In addition to your online accounts, consider internet-connected devices, which can quietly collect information in the background. Every time you say “Alexa” or “Hey, Google,” remember that a recording is being made.

Remember that apps and websites are collecting your information, too. There’s no hard and fast rule as to whether each of their settings should be turned on or off, Coleman says. The key is to keep your privacy settings at a level you’re comfortable with.

And if you no longer use an app, delete it.

Make better passwords. Strong passwords go a long way toward protecting your information. Obvious ones, such as “Password123,” don’t cut it.

Long, random sets of uppercase letters, lowercase letters, and special characters are best. Think that’s too hard? A password manager can help.

Experts are divided on whether you should change your passwords frequently, but if there’s any chance one of yours has been stolen in a breach, change it right away.

And one other thing all experts agree on: Don’t use the same password for multiple accounts.

Turn on 2FA (aka MFA). While you’re getting your passwords in shape, make sure you’ve enabled multifactor authentication, or two-factor authentication (2FA). Basically, this requires you to enter a second form of identification—such as a code texted to your phone, a biometric identifier, or a physical key—in addition to your password before accessing your account.

These days 2FA is available on everything from banking websites to Gmail. And it goes a long way toward keeping the bad guys out of your stuff if your password is ever stolen.

Protect and educate your kids. Just because your kids are supposed to be using the family iPad to attend school online doesn’t mean they actually are. Keep an eye on them and talk to your kids about smart behavior online.

It’s never too early to have that conversation. Kids can fall prey to phishing and other scams just like adults. And pictures posted on websites or social media can be copied and shared. Even if you delete them, they may never really go away.

The same goes for social media. Parents need to remind their kids to think about the possible privacy implications before they post—not just on themselves but also on others.

Run your updates. This isn’t important for only laptops and smartphones but also for your router and the internet of things devices connected to it. Known security flaws that aren’t patched give hackers easy access to your network.

And a good way to cover all your bases is to use an antivirus program and keep it updated. There are great antivirus packages out there—free and paid—that cover traditional computers and mobile devices, too. Consumer Reports members can check out our full ratings.

Digital Housekeeping

Do you ever feel overwhelmed by the number of log-ins and passwords you have? On the "Consumer 101" TV show, Consumer Reports’ expert Bree Fowler explains to host Jack Rico how to find and eliminate old online accounts.

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