Data breaches are becoming more and more common in today’s digital world. Facebook’s recent announcement is shocking and frustrating for consumers, but it’s merely the latest in a series of data breaches sustained by large platforms:
- Yahoo – 500 million user accounts compromised (discovered in 2016)
- Uber – over 50 million names, phone numbers, emails and other personal details stolen (discovered in 2017)
- Equifax –names, social security numbers, addresses, and birthdays of over 140 million people stolen (discovered in 2017)
- Ticketfly – names, phone numbers, and addresses of over 26 million people stolen (discovered in 2018)
And now Facebook. The fact that all of these account details are routinely targeted by hackers and stolen should remind us all that this data is valuable. Very valuable. And as consumers and users of these various services, we should all take steps to protect ourselves.
But aside from changing passwords every so often, what should we do? Completely avoiding these web services is an option, but Facebook and Yahoo are in the top 10 of most-visited websites in the world. Suggesting users to simply drop them is unrealistic. For me personally, I’m very troubled by these data breaches and I’ve invested a lot of time into finding ways to be smarter with my digital life. Here is what I recommend for regular consumers who want to take action and protect themselves:
Use a Virtual Private Network (VPN)
Normally, when you browse the internet with your phone or computer, your browsing data and anything you transmit (email contents, payment details, etc.) are human readable. This means that your traffic is intercepted, the data can be easily stolen. This is a common scammer tactic, especially at public wifi hotspots like those in airports or coffee shops.
A VPN prevents this type of theft from occurring because it encrypts your data. If your traffic is intercepted while using a VPN service, the data will be unreadable and your personal information will be safe. I use Private Internet Access for my VPN service, but there are many quality VPN services available to consumers. Make your purchase, install the software, turn it on, and browse the internet from your phone or PC with peace of mind.
Regularly clean your devices with CCleaner
CCleaner is a utility software will find and remove unwanted data from your machine, including file fragments, the recycle bin, and web browser histories. CCleaner will also remove temporary internet files, where viruses and malicious code tend to live. I run CCleaner once a week on my PC, and the most recent results are shown here:
In a regular week’s worth of internet browsing, over 6,000 separate tracking files and cookies were found in my temporary internet files. They were probably tracking some of my browsing habits anonymously and sending the data back to their respective sources, a common feature of websites these days. If that’s how many files can get on my PC in a week, imagine how many tracking files are on the average device?
Manage your App permissions
This recommendation is for mobile phones only, but it’s still very important. When you install a new app you should see a system pop-up asking you to authorize the app to access certain functions on your phone. WhatsApp, for example, needs access to your device’s microphone in order to make calls.
But apps don’t always ask your permissions for things that they need. The Facebook app will typically ask for authorization to access your phone’s contacts. If you say yes, then the app will scan all that data and send it back to Facebook’s servers. Suddenly, Facebook has permanent records of your grandmother’s email address, your boss’s phone number, and everything else in your phone contacts. Does that bother you? It should.
Keeping track of app permissions requires some diligence, but you can always adjust the permission settings on both Android and iOS devices. There are also apps available on the Google Play Store and the App Store that will let you manage permissions.
The Bottom Line
My recommendations can’t protect you from everything – none of these tips would stop your information from being caught up in the Equifax breach. But being an active consumer in this world of frequent data breach incidents means controlling the things you can control. If you spend an hour executing these practices, your devices and your data will be safer than they were before.