In light of the spate of recent data hacks, people seem to have disparate and opposing reactions to the news and the thought of our personal information ending up freely available on the web: they redouble efforts to secure their privacy and passwords, or they simply shrug and assume that it’s only a matter of time before the same happens to them. The truth is that we’re simply not very good when it comes to protecting ourselves and our data from the myriad of threats and intrusions that impose themselves on a nearly daily basis. None of us would dare leave our homes without locking our doors. Yet what few ineffectual efforts most of us make at protecting ourselves are akin to leaving the doors of our virtual abode ajar, leaving open the possibility that hackers and prying companies alike can see everything we’ve put online.
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In a recent study available as an ebook, ProPrivacy examined the idea of complacency in our behavior online as it regards privacy and security. In one particularly illuminating experiment, they created a survey with terms and conditions sheet that asked for, among other things, the right to name their firstborn child, access to their streaming services and airspace over their home, and the ability to bring an FBI agent to Christmas dinner. The terms on offer are ridiculous enough to be humorous save for the fact that, of the one hundred people involved in the fake survey, only nineteen even bothered to click the link to the terms and conditions, with only one made it to the end to spot the fake terms. Not bothering to read the terms and conditions is something we’re all guilty of, and our reasons are not dissimilar to those offered by respondents: too long to read, too much trust in companies, or basic indifference.
If failing to read the fine print was our only misstep, that would be enough, but too many of us are falling short in other measures as well. Most of us are now all too aware that we’re giving too much information and data to companies like Facebook, and yet we aren’t doing enough to try and safeguard it ourselves if we’re doing anything at all, instead laying the responsibility at the feet of the same tech companies that are looking to exploit that data. More than that, we’re inviting the intrusions into our lives, with the apps we use and the devices we install in our homes — Alexa and Ring, anyone? If there’s a more apt example of “the fox guarding the henhouse” I’ve yet to encounter it.
And our security online is more perilous than most of us even understand. We’re savvy enough to understand that under no circumstances should we give out our credit card numbers save for online purchase. However, the goalposts have moved so that anything short of that seems fair in the information we give out to companies willingly, including name, address, phone number and location. Even the steps we’ve taken to safeguard our passwords and accounts are inadequate to the mounting threats from hackers, with text-based two-factor authentication susceptible to interception by those looking to gain access.
How can we hope to hold up against so many forces looking to negate the concept of privacy and security, particularly when those forces are comprised of the tech companies that dominate our lives with the apps and devices we’ve come to rely upon? I’ll leave the finer points of the recommendations to ProPrivacy’s report, only to say that the best way to guard your information is to not have it to guard online in the first place. It’s too late in many instances to put the genie back in the bottle, but with every new device and app and website we sign up for, we have a chance to consider what we’re agreeing to and what each is asking us to provide. Free apps are never free because we’re providing something just as valuable: out data, most likely to be sold to third parties or offered up to advertisers. We should be using all the tools available to us to protect the information that’s already online while also looking to avoid creating new risks with each instance of PII disclosure.
It’s easy to feel like privacy and security are hopeless in this day and age when so much of our lives are online, seemingly by necessity. All it takes to start to reclaim some of our control is smart choices and conscious effort in the information we’re allowing to be collected about us. And whatever you do, please read the terms and conditions. #onwards.