Protecting Your Privacy

Protecting Your Privacy

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Protecting Your PrivacyAOL recently put out an article that I thought would interest the residents of our tri-county area in Smith Mountain Lake, Virginia.

Everyone has heard of identity theft, computer viruses, and other similar invasions of privacy. This article gives you 12 practical ways to avoid getting caught in one of these schemes. I found the 12 points enlightening and plan to implement as many as possible.


1) “Phishing” for your private information

Cybercriminals are working hard to gather financial account details and passwords, Social Security Numbers, and, frankly, anything useful for stealing your identity and defrauding you. Often, their strategy is simply to trick you into handing it over. They send deceptive e-mails or instant messages that appear to be from a person or organization you trust. These e-mails include some song and dance to get you to visit a Web site or call a phone number and provide the information. Don’t do it!

To protect yourself, be skeptical of unsolicited messages and disclose sensitive information with great care – and warn your kids to do the same. Several software companies make phishing filters that red-light many dangerous sites. You can get one by downloading the latest version of Internet Explorer or Firefox, which have this capability built-in. Many security software companies, such as Symantec and McAfee, include phishing protection in their security suites and offer the filters alone as free downloads.

2) Malware and spyware

Another way fraudsters collect your sensitive personal information is by planting malicious programs onto your computer. In the old days, they spread viruses through e-mail. Today, the method of choice is to use malicious Web sites to quietly download programs through security holes in the software on your PC. To avoid infection, keep your software up-to-date — especially oft-targeted Microsoft software — and use antivirus and other security programs. And steer clear of sketchy Web sites, such as porn and file-sharing sites and anything pushed in spam e-mails.

3) Social networking sites

Millions of us spend countless hours on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter, sharing the intimate details of our lives, often with people we barely know. Even if you consider your life an open book, a degree of caution is called for. News of nocturnal exploits could hurt you at work, business details could help your competition, and tidbits like your address, phone number, and mother’s maiden name could aid identity thieves. Weigh what you post with care and use site privacy settings to control who sees what.

4) Photo and video sharing

The dynamic duo of the Web and digital camera have made it wonderfully easy to share new baby pics and goofy videos. But if you don’t want the whole world to see your bikini shots on the beach or that drunken dance at your wedding, you need to take some precautions. Many sites make your images public unless you take action to restrict access. The good news is that many sites, from Flickr to Facebook to YouTube, offer privacy settings that let you control precisely who can see exactly which pictures and videos. Even if you do want global exposure, take care that you don’t give out more information than you intended, say, the location of your house if you’re geotagging pictures on Flickr, which will plot where they were taken on a map.

5) Histories of Your Web Use

Where we go on the Web and what we type into search engines like Google, Yahoo, MSN, and AOL can be very revealing. These activities could point to where your child goes to school, where you bank, what diseases you have, not to mention your sexual orientation, religion, or politics. If you use a public computer in a library or café or share one at home or work, then be sure to clean up your online footprints. Learn how to delete your browsing history and personal info you may have entered into Internet Explorer here and your Google history here. Another option is to use a browser with a “privacy mode” (PDF).

With a subpoena, the government or a civil litigant (like your soon-to-be ex-husband or wife) could force search engines to turn over your query history. Learn how to minimize the chances your searches can be personally connected to you here.

6) Targeted advertising and cookies

To show us ads that are more likely to produce a sale, marketers eagerly collect all sorts of personal data about us, from demographic information like sex, age, and location to evidence of our interests and online activities. These companies gather much of this information by dropping small files called cookies on our computer hard drives. Some are helpful and make sites work better, but many are cooked up by intrusive marketers to collect reams of revealing information over years. You may want to accept short-lived “session cookies,” which help a site remember what you’ve done on its pages during a single visit so you can, for example, make your way through e-commerce checkout. But you may want to block or delete “persistent cookies,” which let the site remember you the next time you visit, and “third-party cookies” used by advertisers to track you as you move around the Web. You can usually set your browser to accept or reject different types of cookies in the ‘Internet Options/Preferences menu, and anti-virus scanners can also detect them every time you scan your computer, but more details on how to spot and manage cookies can be found here.

7) Cloud computing

Many of us use Web-based e-mail, instant messaging, and document services like Google Docs from companies that store our data far away in the Internet “cloud.” The convenience is fantastic. We can get our messages and files from any computer anywhere and worry not a whit about storage, security, or backup — generally without paying a dime. But we often pay in privacy. These services typically show you targeted ads, and the data they hold is vulnerable to subpoenas from governments and people who sue you.

If you’re worried about keeping sensitive information confidential, avoid cloud services and store files and e-mails on your hard drive. For a deeper dive into the issues, check out this report (PDF).

8) Electronic medical data

The digital revolution is coming to medical data. Hospitals, doctors’ offices, pharmacies, and insurance companies are moving toward electronic records. Web-based services like Google Health and Microsoft’s HealthVault have sprouted. Digital files may be a boon for reduced medical errors and better efficiency, but the opportunities for privacy breaches could rise. Federal law requires medical information to be protected but only covers players in the healthcare system, not the Googles of the world.

And be warned that defending the rights you do have can be tricky. Find tips and tricks on getting and fixing errors in your records here, and how to talk to your doctor about privacy concerns here.

9) Public Wi-Fi

Blossoming wireless hotspots in cafés, airports, and hotels make toting a laptop more useful than ever. But, a public Wi-Fi connection could open the door for a hacker to pilfer your data. To keep them out, make sure you have an operating firewall — newer Windows PCs and Macs have them built-in. Public Wi-Fi networks also may not encrypt the data they carry, so avoid typing in credit card numbers or any other financial information. If you must, make sure the site you are on is secured — you’ll know if it is if the browser shows a little locked padlock at the bottom right and the address at the top starts with “https,” not “HTTP.”

10) Loyalty Cards from Retail Stores

Many of us carry little cards on our keychains with bar codes or magnetic stripes that get us discounts on cereal and soup. But did you know that grocery stores use cards to collect vast amounts of data about your purchasing habits? Grocery and drug stores (and video, book, and consumer electronics stores, among others) use the data to help decide what products to carry, how much to charge for them, and, sometimes, to target you with coupons and promotions. These stores often sell this data to other companies that want to know more about your buying habits. One remedy is to use a fake name when you sign up, though you should check the contract’s fine print to make sure you won’t be breaking the law.

Cards with a more powerful technology called RFID, which transmits information over airwaves, are beginning to up that intrusion factor. RFID is used in automatic toll payment modules that offer discounts on highway and bridge tolls (and quick passage during rush hour). Most people think the trade of information for discounts is a fair one. Do you?

11) Risks at work

Your privacy rights are largely checked at the door when you enter your workplace — where the rooms and computer systems don’t belong to you. Employers are conducting background checks, looking at your Facebook page, and watching you pretty much everywhere but the bathroom. A 2007 survey shows the broad use of surveillance cameras and tools for monitoring computer keyboards, e-mail (including personal Web-based e-mail), Web surfing, and phone calls. What can you do? Use your cell phone for personal calls and e-mails, and ask your friends and family not to call or leave messages on your office phone. Minimize your recreational use of the Web at work and don’t go anywhere near a porn site unless you want to be fired.

12) Cell phone privacy

As on the Web, marketers (and sometimes government agencies) are eager to collect information about us by tracking how and where we use our increasingly powerful mobile devices. They’d like to gather demographic and behavioral clues from our use of the Web and zoom in on our physical locations, revealed by GPS data, so they can deliver targeted ads, perhaps for stores and even products on the shelves we’re standing beside. The Center for Digital Democracy recommends asking your wireless company some pointed questions about their policies and pushing for privacy protections. You should also read and weigh the privacy policies for any location-aware apps you use on your iPhone.

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