Protecting Yourself in a World of Public Data

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We’re living in an era where the average person’s data is likely exposed in at least some ways, with or without their consent. Depending on your privacy settings, any photos you post to social media, any public statements you make, and even information like where you live and how many speeding tickets you’ve gotten could be publicly accessible.

This exposure is only going to become more important as companies and government organizations partner up to learn more about the world. In some cases, this can heighten security—like when a handful of students from Georgetown used Google images to track a network of tunnels used to transport China’s nuclear weapons. In other cases, it can significantly compromise your privacy, allowing your information to significantly affect your life. And with high-tech data applications being used for everything from warfare to communications, it’s only going to grow more important from here.

Knowing this, what’s the best way to protect yourself in a world of increasingly public data?

Know and Understand Your Accounts’ Privacy Settings

The most powerful tool in your arsenal is awareness. Not all information about you online has the potential to be harmful, nor is it reasonable to expect every bit of information about yourself online to be scrubbed. Instead, it’s important to understand which pieces of personal data are publicly available, which ones you have control over, and which ones are most important to monitor.

Some companies, like Google, do make an effort to let you know how your data is being collected, and how that data may or may not be used. There’s some evidence to suggest that these reports aren’t 100 percent transparent, or at least aren’t updated frequently enough to be reliable, but they’re a good start if you’re interested in how data collection works. Look for a privacy policy document under your account for any major app or tech company, and you should find at least some information about how your data can be trackedand/or used.

Many social media apps and other tech-based accounts offer you options regarding your privacy. You may be able to control which parties can see your information, or block out certain pieces of information for certain parties; for example, on Facebook, you can block people you aren’t friends with from seeing your photos or status updates.

You should also be aware that having the app open, or having a tab open in a browser aren’t the only ways a company can gather information on you. Your smartphone, for example, is capable of tracking what you say even when it’s in rest mode. If you’ve ever been shown a targeted ad for a product you’ve only mentioned in dialogue, this is why. You may be able to control some of your data sharing and privacy settings in the Settings menu of your phone, but otherwise, it’s prudent to be aware of this functionality.

You can be tracked in other ways, as well, so stay aware of your surroundings. For example, store loyalty cards are an easy way to create customer profiles and track what you’re spending and how you’re spending it, and traffic cameras may know your commute to work better than you do.

The idea here isn’t to make yourself paranoid; it’s just to make yourself aware. That way, you can control the settings you can, and make do with the ones you can’t.

Be Careful About What You Post or Say

Even with privacy settings enabled, it’s a good idea to be careful about what you post online—especially if you run a business, or if you work for someone. If Google is indexing what you post, or if an archive of what you’ve said can be found, all it takes is one tasteless, offensive, or irresponsible post to compromise your career indefinitely. Whenever posting something online in a public or semi-public setting, ask yourself; would I be okay with a prospective employer seeing this?

Use a VPN and/or Private Browser

Though it won’t solve all your problems, you can mitigate some forms of online data collection by utilizing a virtual private network (VPN), a private browser, or both. A private browser will not store any of your searches, or any cookies when you access certain sites. A VPN may be able to encrypt your web traffic, so your internet provider can’t tie your traffic to your IP address. While you’re at it, make sure you’re using a Wi-Fi network that isn’t public, and one that’s secure with a strong password.

In the future, it’s only going to be more important for adults to take control of their personal data, and prevent it from being used against them. While the increased applications for gathering public data aren’t all threats (and some are almost universally beneficial), it’s still in your best interest to be aware of what’s going on around you.

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