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25th of June 2018

Internet



Taking matters into their own hands: how consumers can take action to protect themselves online

The United States has a data privacy problem. 

With no laws in place to regulate data brokerage companies, it’s almost impossible for individual citizens to prevent their personal data from being collected. Even the most vigilant internet user isn’t safe from the level of information being collected by companies like credit reporting agencies and social media platforms, who often harvest information without user consent.

Equifax made headlines in 2017 when news broke the millions of Americans’ personal information was compromised for months. This was just the tip of the iceberg — shortly afterwards, Facebook and WhatsApp came forward with equally guilty admissions of mishandling consumer data. Telegram, a supposedly secure end-to-end encrypted messaging app, had a vulnerability exploited by hackers spreading malware to mine cryptocurrencies. Even Uber, the popular ridesharing app with users all over the globe, made breaking news when it was revealed they paid hackers to delete stolen data of over 50 million customers. 

At this point in time, virtually every industry and every individual has been affected by cyber criminal activity in some way. Underestimating digital threats, poor cyber habits and an overall thirst for black market financial gain have contributed to growing number of breaches affecting everyday Americans. 

As long as criminals can profit off of stolen data, cybersecurity breaches will continue to occur. These security breaches are no longer a question of ‘if’ but ‘when,’ and private citizens should demand to know what’s being done to prevent these attacks from happening.

Businesses are forced to rethink how they handle consumer data

In the aftermath of these global data breaches, organizations have been lobbied to take action against cybersecurity thieves. 

Facebook, for example, made several public promises regarding the way it would handle end user data. In addition to informing users who were affected by the Cambridge Analytica scandal, the social media conglomerate vowed to centralize the application’s security settings and remove inactive apps. Restricting access to user data even further, Facebook informed consumers it would also limit the amount of information users shared with third-party apps like quizzes and games. In the aftermath of the Equifax disaster, lawmakers are pushing for greater reform in the credit reporting industry and attempting to block companies from buying consumers’ credit reports without permission first. 

But what American lawmakers should really be doing is following Europe’s lead and developing legislation to enforce stronger protections for citizens’ private data. The European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) increases data transparency, giving consumers the right to uncover who is using their information and for what purpose. And organizations that fail to comply are slapped with major consequences — companies found to have violated GDPR are subject to fines up to four percent of their annual global revenue. Under GDPR, European citizens are given greater control over their personal data. Citizens have the power to restrict third parties from processing their information and can even ask to have their personal data erased from databases.

Unfortunately, the GDPR only applies to European citizens and until the United States moves to regulate surveillance capitalism, Americans are still on their own when it comes to managing data privacy. While there is little private citizens can do when their data ends up in the hands of third parties, it doesn’t hurt to continue exercising good cyber hygiene to mitigate their losses when the next breach occurs. 

With cyberattacks on the rise, consumers need to employ cybersecurity best practices

Instead of waiting for someone else to strengthen data privacy protocols, consumers should take matters into their own hands. 

While nothing is truly foolproof, actions like installing antivirus software can help individual users make it harder for criminals to poach even more data. Other cybersecurity best practices consumers should consider include:

Revisiting account passwords 

In spite of all the reminders to use strong passwords, a significant number of consumers insist on using easy-to-guess login credentials like ‘12345’ or ‘password.’ By creating a unique, alphanumeric password, internet users can better protect their personal accounts like bank, email and social media. And for those worried about forgetting their new credentials, password manager tools help consumers both generate and retrieve complex passwords for any website that requires a login.

Using a VPN whenever possible

To further insulate themselves from threats, users should always use a virtual private network (VPN) when connecting to sensitive servers over a public network. This is especially useful for any consumer trying to connect to sensitive servers like a remote desktop, preventing hackers intercepting data transmissions with a man-in-the-middle attack. With a VPN, a virtual encrypted ‘tunnel’ is created between a user’s device and the server, ensuring no one can see where consumers are browsing or what they are doing.

Employing a data tracker blocker

Whenever consumers visit a website, they leave behind a digital fingerprint which includes identifying features like location and email address. By installing data tracker blocker add-ons, internet users can prevent servers from collecting sensitive data without first asking permission from the consumer. Blocking solutions can limit or restrict the number of ads a user views on a website while Tor browsers hide unique characters like IP addresses.

Keeping operating software up to date   

While it’s easy to dismiss notifications for phone and computer updates, it’s critical that people take the time to install the latest software on their devices. Software updates are important because they often come with crucial patches to security vulnerabilities and can protect users from harmful malware attacks. In addition to fixing security holes, software updates remove older applications that hackers can exploit and include new or enhanced features to improve the user experience.   

Above all, basic common sense can save internet users from the stress of dealing with identity theft and fraud. Consumers should always double check where they are submitting personally identifiable information to and, when in doubt, read the terms and conditions of a website asking for access to their data. With the frequency and severity of cyberattacks increasing day by day, private citizens can’t afford to turn a blind eye to data privacy and should take it upon themselves to strengthen their digital security.  

Peter Zaborszky, Founder of BestVPN.com 

Image Credit: Rawpixel / Pexels

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