Currently, more than 90% of American adults use the Internet. The percentage is even higher among younger and middle-aged Americans. Internet users use the global web predominantly for work, study, communication, and entertainment. With so much screen time spent on online places that often require account creation, people undoubtedly leave vast amounts of digital prints and personal information. All this information could be used for malicious purposes if it ends up in the wrong hands.
For example, online retailers ask users to share information such as addresses, full names, and credit card numbers. Users also share passwords, usernames, cellphone numbers, and emails… and very often, such pieces of information are parts of data leaks. Random conversations on the Internet and profiles on social media can reveal additional information such as the type of utilities that users pay, how they bank, or where family members go to school. Hackers can even see what car a potential victim drives so they know how much ransom can potentially get. It often only takes a few minutes to reverse lookup a cell number, name, or address, so anyone interested can learn a lot about anyone they want.
All this information helps cyber criminals connect the puzzle pieces and strike. Sometimes data leaks are not the only thing to blame for the lack of privacy – personal information data is often publicly available on public databases for hackers and data brokers to exploit. The data points come from criminal courts, records, marriage licenses, voting information, census data, etc. Internet service providers and wireless carriers ask for social security numbers to open an account with them, and the same companies also get hacked quite often. For example, T-Mobile has been hacked at least five times over the last decade.
So how do you keep your life private and limit the digital prints?
Sadly, there is no cure for all. However, there are ways to decrease the number of digital footprints left on the Internet. One of the best ways to keep information off the Internet is by monitoring your name. Setting up a Google alert with your name and addressing every result that appears is a good option to stay on top of things. It can be very time-consuming, but most data brokers have procedures in place for people to request the removal of personal information from such websites.
Utilizing multiple emails could also help; you can have one for spammy and not-so-reliable online retailers and one for all the critical online accounts such as internet banking or utilities. Set your social media profiles to private and remove any information that could be used against you, i.e., employer, affiliations, attended schools, and universities. You can also practice good password hygiene and stop using the same usernames when creating accounts. Internet users can also use antivirus software to prevent hacker attacks and further personal information leaks. Such malware repellents on the market often also come with VPNs that could give you an additional privacy layer while browsing.