Protecting your privacy - it's a no-brainer, right? We do it out of habit all the time, every day (like whenever you lock a door or draw the curtains), but what about your digital privacy? It's pretty overwhelming when you think of just how much personal information is out there on the net in some form or another, stored in websites, services, databases, etc - so where do you even start if you want to keep it safe?
Where there's a will, there's a way! We rely on filing cabinets and safes to keep our physical stuff secure, and now there are digital equivalents out there that are ideal for sensitive data.
As you'd expect, data privacy is a big deal for women - especially when it comes to social media and targeted ads. But women are also pretty good at spotting privacy threats (according to the University of Washington). I'll run through common risks in this guide and outline ways you can shore up your security in just a few clicks.
What is data privacy?
Data privacy is one of those terms that's pretty straightforward when you strip away all the jargon - essentially, it just means keeping important and/or sensitive information safe.
And it's a big concern for big businesses. Just think of the sheer amount of information that a mega-corp like Amazon has about its millions of customers! Stuff like names, addresses, and payment methods. It's all entrusted by those customers under the assumption that it's going to be kept secure and private and not passed around, and the company in question needs to have air-tight data privacy measures in place to make sure that's the case.
Data privacy isn't just a business concern, though. Individuals like you and me also need to be wise to what we're sharing and with who. We visit a lot of sites and services, agree to a lot of terms and conditions, and face a lot of privacy threats - but luckily, proactive measures can deter most of them. Keep reading for the deets!
What's involved in data privacy?
Given how grim and gritty stories are favored in the news cycle, it's likely that a lot of us only ever think about data privacy when a big breach is reported on. I definitely do this; I'll read an article about Amazon customers having their addresses leaked and then have a bit of a panic and change my password. Generally, it's better to stay on top of your data privacy before the you-know-what hits the fan.
In order to do that, you have to know what information is vulnerable or sought after - and generally, it's any information about you, and information about what you do.
- Details like your full name, address, date of birth, phone number, medical records, employment history - that's all stuff about you. It's also known as PII, or personally identifiable information.
- Information about what you do is different, and refers to what you search for online, the time you spend on a page, the links you click, the items you browse for and buy. It's your activity and can be monitored or logged to create a profile.
This is the stuff you'll want to keep private, and the stuff you won't want shared unless you've given your say-so.
So, you might be wondering what businesses and services are doing to ensure these details can't be pilfered by cybercriminals or nosey third-parties. The answer is different depending on which country you live in, but in the UK, businesses and services have to abide by the principles outlined in the Data Protection Act, which includes:
- Storing your data securely and for only as long as is necessary
- Only using your data in relevant ways that have been specifically stated
- Ensuring your data is only ever stored legally
In the US, it's a bit less straightforward. There's no one single Act that covers citizens' rights to privacy or regulates data storage. Instead, there are all sorts of individual laws that combat cybercrime and outline data retention practises. These laws can vary massively from state to state, sector to sector, or even depending on the type of data in question.
Women and data privacy
As I mentioned earlier, women are pretty good at identifying threats to their online privacy. A report compiled by blah suggests that women are more cognizant of the risks of location tagging features, more likely to review their security settings, and prioritize security over popularly. These stats are encouraging on the one hand, but pretty disheartening on the other, because it's through exposure to harassment and cybercrime that women have come to be so aware of - and adept at using - privacy enhancing tools.
It's through things like the Cambridge Analytica scandal that we learned that women's data is particularly valuable - especially if they fall within the 18-49 age group. A woman's browsing session is a commodity now, used by marketers to create targeted advertising opportunities.
Menstruation and fertility apps are a prime example of this practise happening in real-time. To be totally honest, I never really thought of the apps I used as being a threat to my privacy, but then I read the articles, I checked out the terms and conditions, and I realized that actually, this menstruation app knows a hell of a lot about me.
Apps like the now notorious Maya keep tabs on your cycle, as well as health issues, your sexual history, and even mental health concerns. This is all valuable PII, and Maya would have no qualms about sharing it with Facebook.
The result was an influx of highly-targeted ads. If you told Maya you were having a crummy day, you might see an ad trying to flog you something to enhance your mood - a treat, a diet supplement, a health gadget, etc.
Just as a quick aside, for anyone interested in a menstruation app that doesn't go sharing your health concerns or sex life with Facebook, I'd recommend Clue! It's run by a group of women, and you won't need to make an account to use it.
Common data privacy threats
Here's the heavy stuff! The list I've put together here isn't exhaustive by any means, but I've found that these five threats to a woman's data privacy are some of the most common, and can have the most devastating consequences. It's not all doom and gloom, though, because I've included a few quick-fire steps you can take to bolster your browsing sessions.
Of course, it'd be totally remiss of me not to mention that a VPN is really a must-have for any woman who's invested in her data privacy. 38% of VPN users are female, according to Statista, and I think these handy tools can go a long way to making the internet that much more secure, thanks to their encryption and leak protection tools. They're also great for unblocking Netflix!
In the digital world, identity theft happens when someone is pretending to be you, either by having access to your accounts or by creating new, false ones in your name. Once they've assumed your identity (by taking advantage of your PII), the fraudster in question can wreak havoc, steal from you, sell your information on, and all sorts of other ghoulish cyber-crimes. In 2020, almost 1.4 million cases of identity fraud were reported in the USA.
- Be wary of links and emails - it's an age old rule that still holds true; don't click on anything you're uncertain or suspicious of! If you get an unexpected email requesting any information from you - ignore it, or call up the service or business in question to confirm whether the request is legit.
- Keep a low profile - cybercriminals rely on PII to crack into accounts and create convincing fakes, and you'll make their job that much easier if you're constantly oversharing on Facebook or Twitter. Head into your settings to limit who can view your posts and stories.
- Wipe out - if you're planning to upgrade your phone or laptop soon, make sure that you wipe the device before selling or donating it. If you don't, a cybercrook with the right know-how could find all sorts of leftover information or logins. We've got a guide to wiping your device here - and don't worry, it's really not that complicated.
Banking is pretty much an online practise now - and the advent of COVID-19 has seen more and more folks invest in baking apps and remote management. It's handy, sure, but these accounts are prime targets for cybercriminals. They'll concoct phishing scams and dodgy emails in the hopes that you'll be duped and hand over your logins, and then go buck wild with your money - buying stuff, transferring money, opening new accounts. Most big-name bank accounts make use of encryption, thankfully, but you'll still want to exercise caution when it comes to your funds.
- No handouts - again, it's a given, but don't disclose your financial details! Trustworthy sites, services, and businesses are not going to request this sensitive information via email. It's more likely that a crook has cooked up a phishing scam; they're scary good at creating convincing emails, sometimes, but you can foil their plans by simply visiting the site in question, by typing the URL into the address bar, and confirming if the request is real.
- Improve your password - the importance of proper password etiquette cannot be overstated! A strong password is harder to crack, it's that simple. Keep your bank account secure with a password that's nice and complex; go wild with those symbols and numbers, but avoid stuff that's easy to guess, like "p@ssword" or anything containing a family member's name.
- Take a layered approach - the best banking apps support two-factor authentication. It's a simple little measure that can put a stop to hacking attempts, because it requires you to input a single-use code, as well as your regular login, before accessing your account. The code is sent to you via SMS, so even if a hacker had your username and password, it'd be useless to them without your mobile phone, too!
Personal, physical security
It used to be more difficult for criminals and creeps to keep tabs on women and their activities. Documents could be stored in a binder or a lockbox or a drawer, but social media has made oversharing and humble bragging acceptable - and even encouraged. If a creep wants to see where in the world a woman is, they can just take a look at the location tag on their photos or check out their latest snap or status. Of course, the onus to be decent people should be on them, but there are ways to ensure your online activity doesn't have real-world consequences.
You might have a holiday coming up, and absolutely nobody would fault you for being excited about it - especially if it's something you've been looking forward to. However, that one post you make saying you'll be out of the country in July could be a signal for crooks, who now know your home will be unattended! Likewise, if you're planning a more local trip to a secluded area (like a campsite or concert), wait until you're home and safe before sharing your experience.
The internet has become a repository of memories - some good, some bad, and nearly all of them searchable. If you're in the running for a new job, chances are that your potential employer will run a background check on you to comb through your social media profiles and public records. If your name or email is attached to your social media accounts, your employer-to-be could find them, and they might be in for a surprise…
- Be mindful - if your profile or portfolio is public, always take a moment to think about what you're posting and who's going to see it. It's all too easy to stir up controversy, and whilst some employers appreciate outspoken candidates, some are far more traditional, and may opt for a more moderate candidate.
- Be your own fact checker - generally, it's a good idea to make sure the information on your socials matches up with what you've got on your resume. Do the years match up? Does your job history? Little white lies can be caught out quickly this way, so take the time to ensure that you've got your story straight.
- Fresh perspective - once your profile is all dolled up, visit it in incognito mode to get a glimpse of what a potential employer might see if they visit it. You might spot mistakes or inaccuracies that escaped your notice previously - and rope some friends into having a once-over, too.
Right to privacy
Oftentimes when I talk to family about online privacy, they'll fuss about not being bothered, because they're not doing anything "illegal" or "weird" online. That's great and all, but it's not really about hiding from the cops - it's about having your right to privacy taken seriously. Sites collect data without your say-so to manipulate your browsing experience all the time. They can adjust prices based on what they find on your socials, and create tailored ads. These advertisements are annoying at the best of times, and pretty invasive, but they can also be downright dangerous. For instance, if a young woman hasn't told her family that she's pregnant, they can be tipped off by ads that might appear after she's bought some supplies or done a bit of research. Similarly, women exploring their closeted LGBT identities may have to endure invasive or upsetting questions if targeted ads appear on the family PC.
- Block those ads - ads and trackers are all over the web; annoying pop-ups, unpleasant banners, and even "invisible" pixels. Fortunately, there's a lot of ways to block them. Invest in an ad blocking extension, or take a gander at our guide to ousting ads securely by clicking here.
- Toggle your settings - iPhone users can toggle the "Limit Ad Tracking" option in their settings to stop targeted tracking. This option can cause trouble with some apps, though, so be on the lookout for issues. If you've never taken a deep dive into your Facebook settings, now's the time! Go into that Ad Settings menu and turn off targeted ads.
- Go undercover - the browser you're using right now almost certainly has an incognito mode, and it comes in handy for those times you want to visit a site without ads, and without fiddling with settings on a shared device. Bear in mind that private browsing won't retain your logins, so you'll need to know them beforehand.