There’s no doubt your information is out there. And at a certain point, you have to assume it’ll be exposed.
So now what? With everything that’s happened in cybersecurity over the past few years and in the wake of so many high profile breaches all over the world, it’s time for a shift in mindset.
As individuals and consumers, we can’t control everything. We can’t just go in and audit our banks, medical providers and creditors to ensure our personal information is secure. We can’t even avoid sharing our information in many cases.
But at the same time, we do have some control over our digital footprint—and of course over our own behavior, both online and in the real world. There are steps we can take to limit our risk.
The extent of that control depends largely on where you live, and your country or region’s level of privacy sophistication. In Europe today, because of the effects of GDPR and other regulations, online privacy is protected, and users must opt into the sharing of their information by third parties. With this, the decision to share personal information becomes a question of risk versus reward.
The U.S., however, remains an opt-out society. It is consumers’ responsibility to opt out of sharing their information with the services they join—and figuring out how to do so.
As soon as you are born in the U.S., for example, you are assigned a Social Security number for tax and employment purposes, and your information will be shared, by default, with the three major credit reporting bureaus. Since you’re in those databases, basically everyone in the world who offers credit can see your credit information for the purposes of marketing new offers to you.
But you do have some control. Opting out from unsolicited offers is a great way to mitigate risk of exposure, because it limits the organizations that can see your credit information to only those you’ve consented to.
The same thing goes with the apps on your phone, your search history in Google or Bing, and any online banking accounts you have. These are all services that are essential to modern life, but when you sign up or use these services, the default setting is to share your personal information. In the U.S. at least, your search history could always be used against you at some point. The onus is on you to read the fine print and figure out what kinds of information you can protect, and how and where you can opt out.
And what about social media? We all like to be a part of things and participate in our communities. But as soon as you join any social media platform, by default the information you share there is public. You have to go into the privacy settings and security controls to change that.
Yes, you have the choice, but by default you are sharing personal information with an organization that may or may not handle it with your best interests in mind. And even when you’ve locked it down, that information will still often be shared with advertisers.
And then there’s all those services working in the background, collecting information about your habits online and even in the physical world. Recently The Weather Channel was sued in Los Angeles (PDF) for unfairly sharing location data. How many apps do you have on your phone right now that you’ve allowed to track your location? Do you know how that information is being used or shared? What about satellite mapping services and “street views” of your home address?
So, should you delete all your social media accounts and apps, and go back to your old Nokia 3310? Should you abandon your bank card and pay for everything in cash?
Probably not, but the size of your digital footprint is something everyone should be thinking about. There is no doubt that eventually, any app or service you sign up for, whether it be social media, health, banking, or even your weather app, could be compromised and your information used against you. Your online choices could have long-term ramifications, just like your offline choices do.
Mitigating that exposure, at least in the U.S., boils down to taking the time to figure out what you need and what you don’t—and learning how and when to opt out.