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How to protect your data

Keeping your personal data safe has never been more important. We take a look at some of the steps you can take to protect your data and what to do if it’s ever compromised.

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We live in a world where data plays a central role in our day-to-day lives. Many of us create huge amounts of it each day, whether it’s the digital footprints we leave online, the posts we make on social media, or the personal details we hand over to all kinds of companies.  Give its importance, it’s essential to know how to protect your data. 

We take a closer look at the role data plays in our daily lives, as well as why protecting it is important. We also explore a variety of steps you can take to keep your personal data safe, as well as what to do if it’s ever compromised. 

The role data plays in our lives

In this digital age we’re living in, we’re creating ever-increasing amounts of data. Estimates suggest that we generate an estimated 1.7MB of data per person on Earth every second.  This nearly exponential rate of growth means that almost 90% of all data in existence has been created in the last two years.

As we explored in our article on big data, the information that we create is used for all kinds of purposes across many different industries. We’ll not go into full details here (although you should read our other article), but we’ve picked out just a few ways that data plays a role in our lives: 

  • Personalisation. Whether it’s for online shopping, social and streaming media, or email marketing, you can get recommendations based on the data you share and the types of content you interact with. 
  • Protection. Data can be used to highlight potential security threats, both in real life and online. Banks often use data to spot things like fraudulent transactions or anything out of the ordinary. 
  • Healthcare. Your healthcare records could be used to create personalised medical plans tailored specifically for you. This is thanks to the vast amounts of health data it’s possible to gather from patients. 
  • Education. Data trends can be used to help people learn more efficiently. This also applies to both the learning materials themselves and the medium through which they’re presented. 

Of course, these examples are all about how data is used en masse to benefit both individuals and organisations. But what about your own personal data?  

What is personal data? 

In the UK and EU, there is a concrete and legal definition of what qualifies as personal data. According to the European Commission, ‘personal data is any information that relates to an identified or identifiable living individual. Different pieces of information, which, when collected together, can lead to the identification of a particular person, also constitute personal data.’ 

This wide-ranging definition covers a variety of information. For example, your personal data includes:

  • Your name 
  • Identification numbers, such as your passport number or National Insurance number
  • Data based on your location, such as your address or smartphone GPS data
  • Any online identifier, such as your email address or IP address

There are also other types of sensitive data that counts as your personal data under these EU laws: 

  • Your racial or ethnic origin 
  • Your political opinions or your religious or philosophical beliefs 
  • Details about your sex life 
  • Genetic data that reveals information about your health or physiology 
  • Biometric data that can identify you, such as fingerprint data or facial recognition data
  • Information relating to your physical or mental health 

This is a fairly comprehensive list. As you can see, it covers information that can immediately identify you, as well as pieces of data that, when combined, also reveal details about your life. Data laws exist to protect it. 

What is GDPR? 

The laws around data privacy and security in the UK and EU changed in 2018. The General Data Protection Regulation, known as GDPR, is a far-reaching and important piece of legislation when it comes to protecting data. Not only does it cover people within the EU, but it also applies to any organization that collects data related to those people. 

The law was introduced to protect your data in the light of recent advancements in technology. It also restricts the power that organisations have when it comes to handling your data, and means that you have more rights to control it. 

There are eight key points from GDPR that apply when it comes to protecting your data. These rights apply whenever an organisation collects information about you: 

  • The right to be informed. You’re given information about how your personal data will be collected and used.
  • The right of access. You have the right to know how your data has been collected, processed, and stored, and for what reason. 
  • The right to rectification. You can request that any incorrect or incomplete data can be corrected (rectified). 
  • The right to erasure. You can request that your personal data is permanently deleted by the organisation. 
  • The right to restrict processing. You have the right to block or suppress your data from being used or processed. 
  • The right to data portability. You can request that your data is moved, copied, or transferred from one organisation to another. 
  • The right to object. You can object to your data being used in a direct marketing database, and for public companies or authorities to process it. 
  • Rights in relation to automated decision making and profiling. You have the right to demand that decisions about your data are made by humans rather than algorithms. 

Why protecting your data is important 

In the last few years, data protection has become more important than ever. Not only are companies collecting more and more information about us, but it is increasingly stored in digital formats that can be susceptible to breaches. 

For both organisations and individuals, keeping your data safe is essential. Security experts Carbon Black reported that as many as 88% of UK companies suffered breaches in the last 12 months. A similar study from Hiscox estimated that, in 2018, a small business in the UK was successfully hacked every 19 seconds. 

So why is it so critical that we keep our information secure? When it comes to how to protect your data, there are a few points worth considering: 

  • Your rights and freedoms. Keeping your personal data safe means that your civil liberties are protected. It avoids situations where an organisation or individual uses your information against you, such as to discriminate against you.  
  • Fraud. Cybercrime is on the rise, so keeping your data secure helps prevent people from accessing your accounts. Whether it’s your bank details, login information, or other account details, the consequences for breaches can be significant. 
  • Control. Ultimately, protecting your data means you retain control over who uses it and how it is used. Once it’s breached, it can often be very hard to take back full control. 

Although the GDPR regulation exists to help make sure that you have a greater level of protection, there are also steps you can take to increase this security. As well as learning how to protect your data, you also need to know what you should do if it’s ever compromised. 

How to protect your data

Now that we know why it’s so essential, let’s take a look at how to protect your data. The important thing here is to understand some of the ways in which your information might not be secure. From here, you can take the necessary steps to protect it. 

Naturally, a lot of the ways in which your data is vulnerable happens online. Understanding some of the basics of cybersecurity can help you appreciate the ways in which it might be at risk. There are several areas that are worth paying attention to when it comes to keeping your data private: 

On your devices

Whether it’s your laptop, PC, smartphone, or other device that connects to the internet, there are plenty of steps you can take to make sure you protect your data. Here are just a few ideas that can help: 

Backup your data

If you’re concerned about losing things like documents, photos, videos, and other media, you should consider backing up your data. Whether it’s by using an external hard drive, a cloud storage service, or other methods, it can ensure that you don’t lose valuable information. However, you should then be extra vigilant with how that data is stored and handled. 

Use anti-virus and anti-malware software

Virus and malware (malicious software) can infiltrate and damage your device. It can expose your private information, compromise your phone or computer, and mean that your overall security is at risk. Thankfully, there are plenty of good anti-virus and anti-malware programs that can keep your device safe from these threats. 

Dispose of old equipment

Whether you’re recycling an old computer or trading in your old smartphone, you should take steps to make sure you’ve cleared your data from it before you do so. There are various methods available when doing this, as simply deleting everything may not be enough. There are programs you can use, as well as things like magnetically cleaning the hard drive. 

Update your software

Operating systems are frequently updated to make sure they’re not vulnerable to malicious attacks and hacks. Many devices automatically download and install the latest updates, but it’s possible to turn them off. If you haven’t updated your computer or smartphone in a while, make sure you have the latest operating system updates installed. 

Pay attention to passwords

Passwords are a hot topic in the world of cybersecurity. Just about every account or service you use will require one, so it is tempting to simply use the same few for each one. However, this makes it much harder to protect your data, as one breach could lead to multiple compromised accounts. You should use a combination of upper and lower case letters, as well as numbers and symbols in your password. You could also use a password manager to create secure passwords for each of your accounts. 

Pay attention to app sharing

When you install an app on your smartphone, you’ll often get a notification asking for your permission to share certain information. It’s essential that you keep track of which apps are sharing what data, as some will take more than you might expect. You should review your apps every so often to make sure that they’re not overreaching when it comes to collecting your information. 

On the internet 

Many of us are pretty much constantly connected to the internet. Although it’s a useful tool, it can be turned against users. As such, it’s essential you take steps to protect your data when you’re using it. Here are some tips on doing exactly that:

Be careful of what data you share

Many websites and online services will ask for you to share data when you sign up. It’s worth paying attention to what is required and what is requested. You may not need to hand over anything more than your name and email address. Similarly, you should look out for what the website will do with your data and who they will share it with. 

Use two-factor authentication 

One of the ways that many online services are trying to protect your data is by using two-factor or multi-factor authentication. Essentially, this is where you use a secondary means of verifying your account. It could be an email, text message, or code delivered to your smartphone. It’s often a good way of keeping your account secure. 

Be wary of public Wi-Fi

Although it’s certainly nice to work when you’re on the go, public Wi-Fi network connections are often not very secure. The data you send can potentially be intercepted by other parties. As such, you should avoid things like bank transactions or sending sensitive information when connected to these networks. 

Learn about cookies

Cookies are small text files that are transferred to your computer or smartphone when you use an app or website. They’re used to remember information about you, meaning you don’t have to continually enter your details. Similarly, they also help with things like targeted ads. It’s important to know how websites use cookies and what data you might be sharing if you accept them. 

Only use secure websites

When you visit a website, you’ll often (hopefully) see a small padlock symbol at the top of the browser navigation bar. This means that the information you send or get through the website is private. You should still be careful, even when this symbol is present, but you shouldn’t share personal data on sites that don’t have it. 

Don’t click on suspicious email links

One particularly popular way of trying to compromise your personal data is to use what’s known as phishing scams. These are often sent via email (although increasingly via message) and essentially try and trick you into handing over data. It could appear to be from a company you know, and usually require you to click on a link or download an attachment. You shouldn’t do either until you’re entirely sure it’s legitimate. 

Using social media 

Social media has become a powerful tool. Individuals and organisations are using social platforms for all kinds of reasons. Although they can be a useful way of keeping in touch with people, they also have their dangers when you’re trying to protect your data. Here are some tips to stay safe: 

Don’t overshare 

Sharing too much of your personal information across your social media sites can be dangerous. Things such as your address, schedule, and other facts about your life could be turned against you. You should always question whether you’d be comfortable with strangers knowing about the things you share. 

Update your privacy settings

Most social media sites allow you to have some degree of control over who sees what on your social media profiles. However, they often default to share quite a bit of personal data. You should regularly check to see how your information is being presented, and who can see it. 

Block suspicious accounts

If you get a friend request from someone you don’t know, you should be wary of it. Those with malicious intent will often set up fake profiles in the hopes of luring unsuspecting victims to reveal more information about themselves. If you do spot anything suspicious, you can block the account, meaning it can no longer interact with you. 

Know your friends

In a similar theme, you should check what information you share with certain social media friends. Many of us have large networks, often containing people we don’t know so well. You can often use settings and other tools to manage who sees what. Only share your most intimate posts with those that you know and trust in real life. 

What to do if your data is compromised

Even when you know how to protect your data, there can be instances when someone accesses it without your permission. Whether you’re targeted individually, or your data is compromised as part of a wider data breach, you need to take steps to prevent further damage. Here are some things you can do: 

Change your passwords

It can sometimes be tricky to know what data has been compromised in a breach. Often, password data is taken, but not necessarily accessible. However, you can check whether or not you have an account that has been compromised in a data breach. This site will give you details of any accounts that have been affected, meaning you can change your passwords. You should also change it on any accounts where you’ve used the same one. 

Keep an eye out for fraud

In the wake of a data breach, you’ll want to keep an eye on your bank statements and other account activity. Fraudsters will sometimes try and access all kinds of accounts once they have your personal data, so it’s worthwhile being vigilant. 

Look out for scams 

Those who have access to some of your personal data may try to wrangle more from you. Be wary of calls or emails that ask you for personal details. If you’re unsure about who’s calling you, you can ask them to provide details that only they would know, such as the details of your contract. If you’re still unsure, hang up and check the number yourself. Remember, if it’s important, you can always call them back. 

Report it

If you feel that your data has been compromised, there are several ways that you can report it. Firstly, you can contact the organisation that you believe is responsible for the breach. You can outline the impacts of the data loss, as well as your expectations for them to compensate you. Secondly, you can report a breach to the Information Commissioner’s Office

Final thoughts 

Now that we know how to protect your data, it’s clear why it’s such an important topic. The personal information that we share is valuable, both to us and the organisations we share it with. However, there is always the potential for it to be used against us. Taking time to protect your data is worth it, and there are many ways in which you can do so.


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