According to the Identity Theft Resource Center, there were more than 1,300 significant data breaches in 2017.1 Compare this to 2005, when there were fewer than 200 such breaches, and it is easy to see why data protection is such a hot topic.
As an individual, there is a lot that you can do to reduce the risk of having your personal data compromised. It helps to understand the potential consequences of letting your personal information get into the wrong hands too. Once you do, you will see why it pays to be diligent about shielding personally identifiable information and other types of data from prying eyes.
What Is Personal Data?
Personal data is data that pertains to a particular individual.2 If you go online at all, odds are that at least some of yours has been compromised at some point.
Examples of the types of personal data that can cause problems for you when compromised include:
- Names, including your full legal name, your maiden name, your mother’s maiden name, and any aliases that you use
- Numbers, including for your driver’s license, your passport, your social security card, your credit card, and your bank account
- Addresses, including your street address and email address
- Personal characteristics, including your handwriting and photos of you
- IP and MAC addresses, which can often be linked to one person
- Biometric data from fingerprints, retina scans, and the like
On top of the above personally identifying information, other types of information can become problematic when they can be linked to you, including:
- date of birth
- place of birth
- marital status
- geographical information
- medical information
- educational information
- financial information
What You Must Do to Protect Personal Data
Examples of things that you should do to protect your personal data include:
- Keep your mail secure: If necessary, use a mail slot or use a box that you can lock.
- Shred documents: Minimize the risk of identity theft by always shredding potentially sensitive documents. Get into the habit of regularly shredding receipts, bank statements, credit card statements, and anything else that may contain your personally identifying or financial information.
- Protect your SSN: Don’t give out your social security number to just anyone. Oftentimes, businesses ask for it for no real reason. Whenever you are asked for yours, find out why it is needed. Additionally, keep your social security card filed away to avoid having it fall into the wrong hands.
- Be careful with passwords: As evidenced by many highly publicized data breaches, people’s personal passwords are acquired and shared across the Internet with ease. This is why it’s so important to always use unique, strong passwords for all online accounts. You should also update your passwords on a regular basis. There are apps and programs that help you to keep track of all your passwords, so definitely look into them.
- Review online privacy settings regularly: Just because your Facebook or Twitter account was locked down last week doesn’t mean that it still is. Social media is a particularly popular place for hackers to dig up information about individual people, and it is crucial to keep your profiles as private as possible. Social media sites regularly update their apps and other settings, however, which is why it is important to review your privacy settings on a regular basis.
- Keep your software up to date: Yes, being prompted to update your operating system or software is annoying. However, failing to do so quickly could put your personal data at risk. Operating systems and software are attacked constantly, so developers are constantly coming up with updates to address such attacks. Without keeping your programs up to date, you are more likely to become a victim.
- Use an antivirus program: Cyber-attacks are among the top ways that criminals gain access to people’s personal data and information, so it’s essential to use a reputable antivirus program at all times. Just like with operating systems and other programs, your antivirus program should be kept up to date to ensure that the latest viruses are included in its list of definitions. Otherwise, new attacks may not be detected, and your information could be put at risk.
- Change passwords after major data breaches: Any time that you hear about a massive data breach in the media, get into the habit of changing all your passwords. Do it even if you have never used any of the websites that are cited. This information is often sent all over the place, so it is better to be safe than sorry.
- Beware of phishing attacks: Before social media came along, hackers engaged in “phishing” via email to fool people into providing personal information, including credit card information. Nowadays, this practice has increasingly moved over to the world of social media. As a general rule, never provide personal information online — even if you think that the person on the other end is legit.
- Archive or delete unneeded data: Finally, make sure to do some housekeeping with your personal data a few times a year. Shred any physical documents that you no longer need, and archive or delete any computer files or online files that are no longer necessary. Just because data is not useful to you any longer doesn’t mean that it’s not to a potential hacker.3
What Could Happen to You If You Don’t Protect Personal Data
Some of the potential consequences of not protecting personal data include:
According to IdentityForce, around 16 million Americans were victims of identity theft in 2017, which represents an increase of nearly one million since the previous year.4 If your personal data falls into the wrong hands, it can be used to steal your identity. Digging out from under identity theft is a major ordeal, so protecting personal data is something to take seriously.
If your personal information is readily available for the Internet to see — say, through an unsecured social media profile — it can negatively affect your reputation. This can cause you to miss out on potential job opportunities or to face general embarrassment, so do everything that you can to keep your info under lock and key.
Without taking care about your personal data, hackers can perform attacks on your home network and devices. From there, they can gain access to a treasure trove of information about you and your family, so make sure that your Wi-Fi network is secure, that you are using a firewall, and that all your programs are up to date.