protecting your privacyIn today’s world, it seems like it’s gotten increasingly difficult for consumers to manage their privacy. With complex systems like the Internet of things (IoT) being designed to share exponential amounts of data, the collection of consumer data has become a profitable enterprise for both tech companies and organizations known as data brokers. Other companies, including Internet service providers, are also now interested in the value of selling user data. Although these developments represent a setback for privacy, consumers still have a few options for reducing the amount of information they give away to companies. Continue reading to learn all of the ways you can control who sees what in your digital life.

How can I control my data?

Whether we’re aware of it or not, data collection happens all the time, and the means by which this information is gathered varies heavily, making it difficult to keep up with. Although we might not know about or be able to control every potential source of “data leak” in our lives, there are some steps you can take immediately to reduce the amount of data you produce.

Opt-out of data collection from the companies that allow it

In order to combat the shadowy appearance of their industry, some companies and data brokers have developed consumer-facing databases that allow individuals to opt-out of data collection. While this is by no means a complete solution, it’s a start for individuals who may want to get a handle on what is out there about them. Unfortunately, there is no official list of all companies and data brokers with an opt-out option (it’s usually hidden under the account settings for companies and service providers), which means consumers will have to do some digging. This will especially be challenging in terms of data brokers, considering the knowledge we do have on data brokers comes predominantly from the work of dogged journalists, consumer advocacy websites and organizations like the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse and the World Privacy Forum. Although these lists might not be exhaustive, they provide consumers with a starting point for wrangling back control of their data.

Beware of your shadow

As stated above, you produce a lot of data, and in the age of big data, there’s a gold rush for that information. Luckily, you can control how much data you produce by changing your Internet and technology usage patterns. Your digital shadow (or digital footprint) is the amount of information you leave behind every time you respond to an email, post a selfie or enroll in an online shopping service. If you’re familiar with the concept of an attack surface, then the idea of a digital shadow shouldn’t seem too foreign, as both are intimately related. Your attack surface includes your digital shadow or digital footprint, as information that leads back to you can be used by more than just companies who want to sell you goods. Hackers can use your digital shadow to identify and exploit you or friends and family. In this sense, your digital shadow isn’t just a threat to your privacy, it’s also a cybersecurity threat that you should manage by reducing your attack surface.

Read the terms of service and opt-out whenever possible

Although no one knows every single company buying and selling consumer data, consumers can still take a look at the terms of services for the products and services they use, specifically reading any sections detailing how companies and services handle data and privacy. You might also want to consider enrolling in Do Not Call registries and pay close attention to privacy notices you might receive when enrolling in new services, so you’ll know if it’s possible to opt-out of certain types of data retention and selling.

Become privacy savvy

Given the proliferation of online technology platforms, there’s been a push for consumers to become more tech savvy by embracing things like social media and the IoT, with the push for security and privacy savvy being slow to follow. If you want to use the Internet but maintain as much as your privacy as possible, you’ll definitely need to become privacy savvy by learning the language of privacy advocates. Here are some of the important terms:

Encryption has been in the news for a while because of incidents like Apple vs. the FBI and the rise of ransomware. The term refers to securing content with a cryptographic protocol, making it inaccessible to anyone who doesn’t have the decryption key. Nowadays, most software developers have encryption enabled in web services and on websites, but consumers haven’t taken full advantage of the technology by manually encrypting their most sensitive offline contents. For example, Windows 10 users can encrypt their hard drive so that if their system were stolen, its contents could never be read. Although manual encryption isn’t necessary, it’s worth considering if you’re a tech-savvy individual.

Virtual Private Networks (VPN) are technology we’ve covered before. Many are turning to them due to privacy concerns over public Wi-Fi networks and due to what seems to be the impending end of net neutrality. VPNs promote privacy by routing your traffic in a way that obscures its source, making it harder for you to be tracked. Tor, known as the “dark web browser” works a bit differently, but accomplishes the same objective. Given the difficulty of setting up a VPN or Tor configuration properly, getting one of these tools isn’t something to do haphazardly.

Ad blockers and script blocker are other tools to consider. There are browser plugins designed to prevent ads from running or to stop non-essential scripts (usually used for tracking and advertising) from running on the page. These plugins are available in most modern browsers, though they’re not loaded by default because they’re provided by third parties. To access one of these programs, simply go to the plugin library of your browser and search for an ad blocker or script blocker of your choosing. Keep in mind, however, that there are many legitimate sites that use ads to for revenue, so if you like and/or trust a site, you should make sure to whitelist it in your ad or script blocker.

Privacy optimized browsing can also help. Most people are familiar with Microsoft Edge, Firefox, Chrome or Safari, but there are dozens of other browsers which are optimized for privacy. If you’re really interested in improving your privacy, you should familiarize yourself with the many other browsers that exist, as no two browsers are alike, and some are better than others when it comes to things like usability or privacy.

While there’s no easy way for you to know who has your information, there are some things you can do to limit who can collect your information. For more tips on staying safe online and protecting your privacy, keep reading our privacy blog.