With Hackers and Big Brother Watching Here’s How to Keep Your Personal Information Private

Does the recent news of the NSA and other government agencies tracking your information have you worried?  It should, and this guide will offer some tips on how to protect your privacy.

Several reports have come out recently that are rather terrifying.  We’ve heard that the National Security Agency, or NSA, has been snooping into data of U.S. citizens.  The IRS is supposedly looking to follow suit as well with the hopes of delving into the social media profiles, bank accounts, credit card transactions and more.

You could just say, “That’s fine with me.  I trust my government.”  Should you though?  Doesn’t it feel violating to know that your every move can and probably will be tracked in the future?  Where’s the privacy?  It’s definitely a scary thought, but luckily, there are things you can do to try to cover your personal information not only from the government, but also cybercriminals and others looking to cause harm.

What is personal information?

Before we start describing the ways to keep your personal information private, let’s discuss what the phrase “personal information” entails.  If asked, most people would probably say that personal information comes in the form of such things as your name, Social Security number, date of birth, and address.  While this is true, that’s just a small piece of the pie.  Since social media is so popular now, you should also include things such as your status updates, posts, and photos as part of your circle of personal information because these can absolutely be used by others against you.

Why should you keep your personal information private?

Now that we have a basic understanding of personal information, WHY should you keep it private?  Beyond the simple thought of doing it out of paranoia, there are several concrete reasons for maintaining privacy.  Here they are:

To safeguard against identity theft

Identity theft is a cybercrime that can turn any victim’s life completely upside down.  It is the top cybercrime in existence, and if not detected quickly, the potential for financial ruin is possible.  A person can steal your online data and then pose as you.  They then use this stolen identity to commit a wide variety of fraudulent acts, such as taking out loans in your name and much more.

To keep your banking info protected

Online banking has become quite popular, as it saves many from having to take a trip to the bank or make an irritating phone call to find out their balance.  Unfortunately, cybercriminals know this and have taken a liking to hacking banking credentials and sites.  Bank websites supposedly protect you, but they are sometimes outsmarted by hackers.  Once they have your information in their hands, the sky is the limit, as fraudsters can make withdrawals, transfers, and more right from your account.

To keep criminals from running up your credit or debit cards

Did you know that cybercriminals all over the world buy and sell stolen credit card numbers?  There are huge underground markets where such transactions take place.  Once those numbers are sold, people will make as many purchases as they can, leaving YOU holding the bill.

To avoid the sale of information to companies and marketing agencies

Don’t you hate those telemarketing calls for crap you never need or want?  What about all that spam email?  All of it is a pain in the butt, but it doesn’t appear out of nowhere.  Companies phish for your personal information and preferences and then sell that information to buyers looking to market their offerings to you.  Not only is this a hassle, but it also violates your privacy and puts your information in unwanted hands.

To help you keep or get a job in the future

Current and future employers love social media sites as they get to see the type of person you are.  If you are very outspoken, this could backfire into getting that potential job you’ve always wanted, regardless of how spotless your resume may be.  Damning pictures won’t help your cause either, and status updates that complain about your employer are basically employment suicide.

To protect your academic future

Just like with employment, social media profiles can work against you when trying to gain admission to a university.  Admissions departments could be watching your updates and photos, and this could mean the difference between receiving a letter of acceptance or rejection.

To protect your medical care status

Criminals not only love to steal information for financial reasons, but they’ll also do it to secure medical care for themselves.  Pretty sneaky, huh?  Once they get this care thanks to your information, you could be looking at thousands in medical bills for procedures you never even received.

To protect your insurance status

If you are trying to secure some type of insurance, such as life insurance or that for your home, you could be denied if you have social media profiles filled with risky status updates or photos.  Would you insure someone if they constantly took nosedives into the pool by jumping off the roof?  Probably not, so don’t post pictures of such crazy things.

To protect yourself in a lawsuit

If you are involved in a lawsuit or could possibly get involved, others may take a liking to your personal info.  This could somehow cause you to lose a case.  It’s even worse to post updates about a legal case that is currently going on, so keep all of that to yourself.

To prevent break-ins

Have you ever posted a status update to your Facebook account that says you are going on vacation with the family?  It may seem harmless, but it’s not.  You never know who could be scouring your profile, and they could use this knowledge to plan a burglary when you are not home.  It doesn’t even have to be a vacation, as posting a quick trip to the store could lead to your home being burglarized.  Many stories hit the news during the holidays of such robberies taking place.

To protect your business’ reputation

This is geared towards owners of businesses, either conventional or online.  Want to lose customers and destroy your reputation?  Get hacked and have your customer information made public.  See how they’ll react.  It won’t be pretty.

How to keep your personal information private

You now know what constitutes personal information, as well as many reasons why you should keep it private.  So, how do you actually do it?  Here are ways to protect your privacy via your actions on the Web, telephone, and more.

Shield your Web history

News reports have told us that the NSA (as well as others) can spy on your browsing history and Web searches via search engines like Google.  Your IP address, the number sequence that identifies your computer, can be traced back to you thanks to your internet service provider.

To combat this, use a virtual private network, or VPN.  This type of network encrypts the information and acts like a virtual barrier of secrecy between you and the sites you visit.  Instead of activity being traced back to you, it goes to the VPN.  One VPN worth considering is IPVanish.  It’s easy to use, can be set up on multiple devices (laptop, smartphone, tablet) and is pretty cheap at around 10 bucks a month.

Make your social media profiles private

If you really want to keep personal information private, you should avoid having social media profiles altogether.  If you must have your Facebook and Twitter, however, be very careful what you post.  Make sure that your profiles are set to private so that only your friends can see them. 

Even then, however, you are still open to trouble.  A person you think is a friend could use your profile’s data, such as your dog’s name, mother’s name, etc. to try to hack or guess your password on other sites.  It’s simply not worth it if you truly value your privacy.

Try SpiderOak instead of Dropbox

The NSA wants to get its hands on your Dropbox too.  So, if you have tax records, private documents, or other personal info stored there, the NSA will get to see it.  Not good!  Add to that the fact that Dropbox has had its own security problems in the past, and you need something new.

That new thing is SpiderOak.  It’s similar in function to Dropbox, as you can add things to your folder and sync it to various devices.  The difference is that SpiderOak offers solid encryption.

Keep your phone secure

There are several programs out there intended to secure your phone use.  If you are worried about the security of your voice calls, Silent Circle is a program that will help safeguard them for a monthly fee.  RedPhone is a similar program that’s good for securing calls.

To keep your text messages secure, programs such as Wickr and Gibberbot are solid and will maintain a nice level of protection against the NSA and others.

Alternatives to credit cards

The NSA, IRS, and others would probably like a very close look at your credit card transactions.  How do you keep them private?  By using alternatives.  Use cash in person.  As for online shopping, buy prepaid gift cards with cash at your local store.  They have them for American Express, MasterCard, Visa, and more.  Then use those cards online to make your purchases without having to risk your own personal cards.

Bitcoin is another alternative.  This virtual currency could grow in popularity and presence over time, and it offers anonymity when shopping online.  Not too many sites accept it as of now, but that should change.

These are just some ways to keep your personal information private.  The fact that agencies like the NSA want to track your every move is disturbing, but you can either accept it or take the necessary steps to prevent it.

Written on 6/16/2013 by Enrique Stone.

Photo Credit: Intel Free Press


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