Staying Safe Series: How to Protect Personal Data Online

 In Emergency Preparedness

I found an website with an amusing URL, I Know Where Your Cat Lives, that also carried a serious message about how much of your information is exposed online. Cat owners who innocently posted their pets’ photos inadvertently revealed where they lived since their smartphones tagged the photos with their location (aka geotags). I will be writing a series of blog posts on Staying Safe, and this first post focuses on how to protect personal data online. I will discuss how your information is publicly available (even if you didn’t share it yourself), and I’ll recommend easy steps to wipe your digital footprints.

What’s online may shock you

When you use “free” services like Facebook and Google, you are giving up personal data as a form of payment. A friend recently expressed alarm when she saw an online ad for a product that she was thinking about buying, but hadn’t yet researched. Companies like Facebook, Amazon, and Google are monitoring your activity to predict what you’ll buy. But there’s no need to take the draconian measures of living off the grid; you can continue to enjoy searching for YouTube videos and scrolling Instagram. The key is to understand what these companies are tracking as you use their services. On Google’s My Activity website, you can see what they’re tracking from the particular device and adjust the ads that you see; if you have multiple devices, go to Google’s My Activity from each device.

Even if you don’t have a Facebook account and you never use Google, your information is still publicly available thanks to data aggregators like Spokeo and FamilyTreeNow.com. I was surprised to find my address history of the last ten years and my full family tree, for example. In a Wall Street Journal article, Your Data is Way More Exposed Than You Realize, (subscription required), the journalist invited six volunteers into his lab to see how much extremely personal information he could find about each of them in under an hour, and he managed to shock every person.

Wipe your online presence

Start by going to these two data aggregator websites:

  • FamilyTreeNow.com: listings show age, current and past addresses, phone numbers and possible relatives and associates, based on geography. Remove listings here.
  • Spokeo: listings show birth month, email, current and past addresses, phone numbers, relatives, social networks and court records. Remove listings here.

Next, wipe the digital footprints that you entered into search engines and voluntarily shared on social media; I’ll focus on Google and Facebook in this post.

  • Google: go to Google’s My Activity and Maps Timeline to see what they track, including locations, searches, web-browsing history, and even recordings of your voice. Not visible to public; you can delete data.
  • Facebook has a similar feature called Privacy Checkup.

Finally, if you upload photos to social media sites, ensure that geotags aren’t automatically added to your pictures.

Next in the series: Flying on 9/11: A Sobering Lesson on Why You Should Do Something for Yourself Today.

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