THE BLOG
01/26/2015 07:02 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

International Privacy Day: Protect Your Digital Footprint

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You cherish your privacy, don't you?

Get naked. Now go into your bathroom. Shut the door. Sit down.

You may now cherish your privacy.

Just don't expect to cherish it for long. Eventually someone else in your house will want to, um, cherish their privacy.

Once you leave the bathroom and enter cyberspace (with or without getting dressed), well, abandon hope, all ye who enter here.

You probably know data is collected about you every time you visit a website, shop online, engage in social sharing, enable location services or send digital messages and email. But according to a recent global study by Microsoft, most cyber surfers "still don't feel they are completely aware of the information that's being collected about them."

For instance, did you know that Facebook, Twitter and Google+ track your visits to any website with a displayed "Like," "Tweet" or "+1" icon, whether or not you even click one of those buttons? According to Robin Wilton, identity and privacy director for the Internet Society, every day businesses are finding new -- and not always honorable (I know, a shock) -- ways to use this collected intel. (Find out more about data collection here.)

So how do you protect yourself from undesired data collection, and your collected data from misuse or misappropriation?

Don't expect the Feds to help. Three years ago, President Obama proposed a Consumer Bill of Rights, but given recent revelations about potentially unlawful government snooping by the NSA, aided and abetted by cellular carriers and other service providers, this effort seems a bit disingenuous.

So it's up to us to understand our own privacy rights and how best to protect our what's ours in cyberspace.

What are 'they' collecting, and how?

On the occasion of the seventh annual Data Privacy Day (Data Protection Day in Europe) this Thursday (January 28), the Internet Society's Wilton assembled this helpful guide to help us understand and protect our cyber lives.

First, here are three cyber data collection basics:

1. Known and unknown data. Collected data falls into two categories: data you provide by consent when you register with a website, and data taken without your explicit knowledge or consent from your computer and browsing history. The former can include name, address, email, phone number and more. On Facebook, for instance, you may have registered marital, employment status, even the name of your employer. The latter can include anything from your IP address and general location to insights into your age, gender, income, hobbies, health status and financial situation.

2. Good and bad cookies. To know if you're the same person visiting multiple times, to help you navigate a website more quickly, easily and safely, and to help you shop more securely online, a website might set a "cookie," a kind of browser memo to itself that the website can retrieve and read when you revisit a site.

That's good.

But cookies also are created by websites running ads, widgets and other features on a page, which means that visiting one website can result in cookies being set by websites you weren't even aware you were "visiting." And because cookies also can track your online movements and the information you input, all this disparate intel about you can be linked without your knowledge or consent to build a bigger, more complete picture of you -- your habits, preferences, values, aspirations and intentions. Maybe this data doesn't personally identify us, research from as far back as 2008 shows that supposedly anonymous data isn't necessarily hard to re-identify.

3. You may pay more while online shopping. According to a recent Northeastern University study, you may pay more when shopping online based on your web browsing history or even the kind of smartphone you use. Some consumers have seen their credit limits reduced because they shopped at stores frequented by cardholders with poor payment histories. It's not inconceivable to think insurance companies might eventually string your data together to determine if you're insurable, how high your premiums should be based on your perceived risk, or that credit card companies could use your shopping habits to determine your credit worthiness or raise your interest rates.

What you can do about it

Unfortunately, Wilton says, there's no one-click answer to controlling your personal data. But here are some of Wilton's suggested data protection techniques:

"Fracture" your digital identity. Strategically use different email addresses, browsers, credit cards and even devices for different web activities (like personal, work and online shopping) to make it more difficult for entities to assemble one cohesive data set about you.

Check privacy settings. Browsers, devices and apps often are set to share your personal data out of the box. Find and review default settings to see if you're comfortable with data is automatically shared. A quick search for "default settings" and a specific type of browser or device will yield information about that system's settings and how to find and change them.

Regularly review your browser's cookies. You may be shocked by how many cookies have been set on your browser by sites you weren't even aware you visited. Visit whatismybrowser.org to identify the browser you're using, and to see if cookies are enabled and if your "Do Not Track" capability is on. This Indiana University site tells you how to find and control cookies for Chrome, Firefox, Explorer and Safari.

Read the fine print. Know the privacy policies of the devices, websites, social sharing services and applications you use. Find out what permissions apply to the content you upload and how it can be used.

The Internet Society lists a variety of online privacy tools. For instance, plug-ins such as SSL Everywhere encrypt your communications with many major websites, making your browsing more secure, while Ghostery blocks tracking software.

If you're concerned about your data privacy, be willing to adjust your online habits. Sure, Wilton notes, it's a little inconvenient having to lock your house or car every time you leave it, but it's better than being robbed. Your personal data is just as if not more valuable, so it's worth giving up a little convenience to protect it.