As our lives become more digitally integrated, our data becomes more valuable.
Often, data collectors say that the vast amount of information they take in is tightly secured or anonymized before it is packaged and resold. However, MIT researchers discovered in 2018 that individuals could be identified by combining two anonymized data sets covering the same population. A 2019 series from The New York Times went further, exposing the risk to privacy on a massive scale if a major tech firm’s anonymized location data was stolen and cross-referenced to publicly available property records.
As long as consumers’ concerns about privacy remain limited, there is little incentive for companies to cull their data collecting habits. When buying a new smart device such as a phone, tablet or computer or using a new service, look into its commitment to privacy. The market for such devices is growing, but at the moment they tend to be on the premium side of the product spectrum. Expect that to change as this topic gains traction.
In the meantime, here are some best practices to help minimize the amount of your information that data collectors can access.
Many of the largest ad space sellers, particularly those providing tech services like email and social media, now give the option to depersonalize your advertising experience. They’ll still collect the information, but there are some limits to how specifically targeted the ads can be. This is becoming a battleground topic in the tech industry, as companies that don’t rely on ad sales are finding privacy to be a strong selling point.
That silly online quiz to help you determine which fast food mascot you are may be mining serious information about you. Though it’s a bad practice, many online accounts rely on security questions to establish your identity, questions that are easily snuck into online quizzes.
Your home or driveway may be advertising your wealth, making your mailbox and your trash a target. Despite the well-publicized thefts of user data in recent years, an online account is in many ways more secure than an unlocked mailbox, and generally less personal. Privacy experts recommend making the switch, and when you do get mail that contains information about your health, finances or family, make sure to shred it before you toss it.
The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, or HIPAA, protects the information shared with your care provider. There is no similar regulation for health data you share with your fitness device manufacturer. It’s worth your while to make sure you understand what information is being collected and for what purposes. Go into the device settings to see what options you have. The EULA, or end-user license agreement, will have more information if you can read legalese.
Sources: The New York Times; Vox; The Washington Post; Fast Company; Massachusetts Institute of Technology; Consumer Reports; NPR; Goldman Sachs; ZDNet.com