“If you have something you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.”
- Eric Schmidt
This quote from Google’s CEO seems to imply that anyone who doesn’t want their data to be accessible to all is a criminal - but makes it all the more clear just how careful we need to be with anything personal on the Internet.
Though the “criminal” in this case simply wants to prevent adware, spyware, robots and cookies from studying his habits in order to enter him into a database and guide his surfing toward specific pages and - most importantly - tailor ads toward products most likely to please us.
- You have just used gmail to send a message to a friend where you talk about how much you would like to get the newest in lawn mowers, and - abracadabra - without your even having to type in a Google search, you are swamped with ads for lawn mowers whenever you surf the Web?
- you have just received an e-mail from a friend supposedly “stranded” in a foreign country and asking you to send them some money?
- money transfers have been made in your name and without your authorisation?
- somebody is obviously pretending to be you on the Internet?
- You have heard of people being fired over a Facebook post?
- You have heard that paedophiles lurk in chatrooms, IMs and forums?
All these uncomfortable situations emphasise the importance of protecting your private life in a digital world…
Whether you are taking part in a contest, want to sign up for a rewards card, need to fill out a form online or simply post on social media, you are often transmitting personal data to various organisms. Thanks to the Data Protection Act, you have certain rights which, in most cases at least, you will need to assert yourself.
Here’s a little IT course on data protection for you.
Why Protect Your Personal Data?
The right to forget is often invoked once it is too late. The loss or diffusion of personal data - even if it was voluntary at the time - can often end in tears.
Here are a few reasons you will want to be careful about what you post and fill out - something that is sure to come up in your next beginner’s computer class or IT course for seniors….
Your professional reputation
Surfing the Internet can have surprising consequences, something you often don’t think about when you first sign up with your Internet provider.
Though the Internet is often both praised and maligned for its anonymity, some sites publicly display some of the your data, giving an image of yourself that is always incomplete and often erroneous or deformed.
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Social media is definitely in fashion, with people divulging information on their thoughts and actions, often leading to unauthorised (though often completely legal) use of their data.
These people are their own moles in the “espionage” game: living the entirety of your life publicly can not only encourage commercial sites to use that data to sell you things, but can also disqualify you from certain potential jobs or even cause you to lose the one you have.
For example, if you want to join the police force - you have just seen a Facebook post to say they are recruiting - the recruiting officer might take a peep at your own Facebook, Instagram and Twitter accounts, where personal insults, racial slurs or pictures of over-partying that suggest you might not have always upheld the moral values of the police force will make him drag-and-drop your application away to the rubbish bin.
Headhunters also often do some incognito spying before contacting a potential candidate.
Even if you have a common name, it’s not easy to remain anonymous on the Web after you have recounted your latest adventure in all its details on Facebook…
2. Protect Your Honour
The consequences of divulging sensitive, even intimate information may at length prove unbearable: a forced coming-out, public accusations, a double or triple life revealed to friends, relatives and bosses…
Though you might legitimately share certain things with intimate friends, not everything you do needs to be found with a google search. Your life is not the National Archive!
Negative reactions from those around you or even press coverage of something very wounding and intimate can be terrible - some victims have been pushed into depression or even suicide.
You have to take the same psychological precautions as with reality TV, the vices of which have been transferred to Twitter or Snapchat.
There are even extreme cases such as ransomware, a type of cybercriminality that is on the rise: a malware program cuts you off from the data on your computer and promises to restore access in exchange for money.
3. Ensure your physical safety
Even your physical safety can be at risk - for example, if your bank account is hacked, your physical source of money is under attack.
But your health is as risk as well: frauds abound; a meet-up after a little flirtation on a dating site can turn sour; trolls and cyber-bullies can chip at your self-esteem and cause depression.
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And finally, burglars use the Internet, too: Google Maps or Google Earth help them case out their next target, gather information on potential victims by trolling the Web - someone mentions a broken window, another announces he’s on holiday, a third posts pictures of deer in his garden taken by his security camera (and showing just where it’s hidden in the process)…
Computer programming courses can help you decide what to post or what programmes can help you preserve your privacy.
Internet Safety For Keeping Your Private Life Private
The war against spyware
True Internet anonymity is practically impossible when your IP address is leaving so many digital fingerprints that can be picked up by companies that trade in data - and pop-up bots.
You can intercept these little adware programs, which, in addition to feeding on your browser history, slow your browser down. Adblockers additionally allow you to remain anonymous and let you benefit from heightened computer security,
The adblocker Ghostery is particularly interesting in this regard. It runs particularly well with Mozilla Firefox and gives you a live commentary of blocked pop-ups.
Using DuckDuckGo - well-loved by GNU/Linux users - for your Internet searches guarantees the confidentiality of your data and anonymous surfing.
Malware and what you can do about it.
If you are downloading a torrent connected to a P2P network such as eMule or Bitorrent (for completely innocent and legal purposes, of course), it’s a good idea to encrypt and cycle your IP address to limit piracy risks.
Even if you are running OS X, masking your IP is a must.
Remember: your Internet connection is an open door through which hackers can enter!
Proper safety precautions include a good firewall and an up-to-date antivirus (even if it is freeware.)
A question of internet browser
Anonymous surfing is only possible if your web browser allows it; which shouldn’t prevent you from taking a few precautions.
Make sure the url bar shows a proper http protocol (a computer course can help you with the details) and the correct address, as there are copies of important sites such as HMRC and electricity providers that disguise themselves in order to gather login data, addresses etc. from unsuspecting victims.
You may accept cookies from certain sites you trust, but they will slow down your browser and there are bots that trawl cookies to sell your IP to third parties. The same is true for passwords, even encrypted. Anything stored on the Web is susceptible to being hacked by persons of questionable morals.
Habits to Adopt & Break to Protect Your Data Online
Encrypt your access data
That’s right. Encrypt everything you can: your IP, your ISP interface, proxy, user session, client account…
Make sure as well that you keep your information and exploitation systems up-to-date, whether it be your antivirus or Firefox add-ons.
Don’t use the same passwords everywhere and change them regularly. Make sure they have a minimum of letters, numbers and special signs (such as an ampersand or an exclamation mark).
Double authentification reinforces personal protection by adding temporary passwords, in a Cloud for example.
Be careful when surfing the Net
Criminals take advantage of lax security.
Never answer (and don’t even open!) anonymous emails or emails coming from someone you know but with doubtful content (asking for money…): it’s a type of digital identity theft.
On the same note, don’t give away your email address anytime a website asks for it, or you will be inundated with spam…
Be aware of the legal consequences
Freedom of speech is one thing, but European and British laws have provisions for certain opinion crimes such as libel that will not only ruin your chances for that police force application, but could also lead to imprisonment and other losses of civil liberties.
“The Internet never forgets” - anything you write is saved, so be careful of what you write. Avoid divulging sensitive or confidential information and don’t mouth off about your superiors/neighbours, no matter how angry you are.
Backup your files
To keep the data you are not uploading or saving to a Cloud from disappearing forever, regular backups are essential (on an external hard drive, for example) just in case you are hacked or your hard drive crashes.
The local pub’s free Wi-Fi is practical, but hardly confidential.
Using a VPN (a Virtual Private Network) increases your data security as they are difficult to crack. The same is true for a Tor system.
To sum up: constant vigilance!
For a Guide to Web Security & Computer Safety, check out our other related blog.