Cambridge Analytica. Mark Zuckerberg in front of the US Congress. The first data breach of 2019 occurring less than 24 hours into New Year’s Day.
The use and abuse of data is no longer something that we can afford to ignore.
Consumers are coming to understand that their data is an economic asset for media companies, advertisers, and anyone looking to influence public opinion – and that they’re giving it away for next to nothing.
Up until recently, we’ve been in the dark about exactly what personal data about us is stored by the online giants and what they’re doing with it. That’s changing, as scandals and data breaches have started to open consumers’ eyes, and national governments have begun to get involved.
But while regulation can play a watchdog role, the burden will still be on us as individuals to protect our data and be very careful about how and if we share it.
Now is the time to take back control. But how?
First, be careful who you trust. We are social beings, and social networks are built on the human need for friends and connections.
But how many of your Facebook contacts are actually your friends?
The bigger your social network, the higher the risk. Now is the time to make trust your litmus test. Set a high standard for who you connect with. As paranoid as it might sound, assume the worst of any individual. And don’t even think about accepting random requests.
Second, take the time to go into the settings of every internet service where you post personal information. Assume that you will post something deeply personal there someday – if you haven’t already.
Then make sure to set your privacy settings according to how comfortable you feel about that data, not just the photo of the awesome lunch you just had.
Remember that your incentives and the incentives of the social networks are not aligned. It is in your best interest to have strict privacy settings, while they want to be able to collect and share your data as widely as possible.
It’s up to you to take privacy seriously – they won’t do it for you.
Also, don’t forget that digital data never dies. Conduct the following thought experiment: for one week, assume that whatever you post will end up on the front page of your local newspaper or news website, and that all your family and neighbours will see it.
Does that change what you post? If so, rethink your online behaviours. What you post will live forever and potentially be accessed way into the future by anyone.
Finally, never forget the old adage that you are the product.
Your data is a massive asset to many you don’t know. Random data you share over time is as we speak building an incredibly accurate profile of you, and those profiles exist across every service you use. Without them, the services cannot make money from you.
The goal is not to retreat from the online world. The internet has provided an amazing medium for us, and made countless aspects of our lives far easier.
But with more and more of our personal data collected, analysed, and sold outside our knowledge, the potential for security breaches and misuse will only grow.
It’s time to get smart, and take back control of our data.