Bruce R. Mendelsohn
The Hired Pen: Fast, Affordable Communications Solutions

How to Protect Your Personal Digital Health in 2021

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If you don’t have access to an elite  cyberwarrior who can help bolster your online privacy and security, this article offers some ways you can make it a little harder for them to have access to you

Just like regularly changing smoke detector batteries, the beginning of each year is a good time to check your “Personal Digital Health”. Beyond the practical benefit of auditing your current digital security and privacy, the hour or so you invest to review, clean, organize, and update the settings on your browsers, social media, email, and Virtual Home Assistants will enhance your digital privacy and security in 2021.

Last year, the average internet user spent 6 hours and 43 minutes online every day (Statista). You can visit a lot of sites in almost seven hours. Multiply that by 365 and you’ll have a rough idea of how many chances you have to reveal Personally Identifiably Information (PII). (This doesn’t include sites you visit on your smartphone, mobile device, or other internet-enabled devices).

Before you start assessing your personal digital health, you need to know where you’re vulnerable to cyberattacks, malware, phishing scams, or worse.

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Of course, you use strong passwords. Sure, you regularly clear your cache, disable cookies, and erase your browser history.

As a savvy Internet user, you know that companies and websites track everything you do online. Every ad, social network, and website collects data about your location, search history, browsing habits, purchasing patterns, and more. That info is stored somewhere in some digital folder, which means it’s vulnerable to bad actors. (See SIPRNET shutdown, Pentagon).

Aggregated over time, the digital data you disseminate in cyberspace could be used to identify you and/or track your behavior via tactics like IP lookups and browser fingerprinting. All that info can enable bad guys to create a profile that matches… you.

The checklist and resources below can help safeguard your personal digital health.

Browsers

As of January 2, 2021, the Internet was home to more than 1.83 billion websites (Tek Eye). Regardless of the browser you use to access your fave sites (Google Chrome is the most popular, with 61.77% web browser dominance), don’t leave behind digital breadcrumbs for bad actors to follow.

  • Use the free analyzer at Privacy.net. It offers several tests to evaluate your browser privacy, listing info that any website, digital ad, and/or widget can collect from your web browser.
  • Find out if your data has been breached. 93% of data breaches happen within minutes, and 83% aren’t discovered for weeks (Statista). Search for your email address on Have I Been Pwned? to cross-reference your email address with hundreds of data breaches.
  • Opt out of data sharing. User-friendly programs like Simple Opt Out let you reduce your profile by opting out of data sharing routinely done by prominent companies like Netflix, PayPal, and Facebook.
  • Clear your cache. Do this after you’ve completed the three steps above. Even though you may likely have to re-enter your passwords when you return to sites you visit often, you’re going to update your passwords anyway.

Rather than fearing or ignoring cyber attacks, do ensure your cyber resilience to them.” (Stephane Nappo)

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Social Media

The best way to protect your privacy on social media is… to not be on social media. For most of us, opting out of social media is unlikely. The steps below can increase your privacy on sites like Facebook (nearing 3 billion users worldwide), Twitter (336 million monthly active users), LinkedIn (500 million users), Instagram (1 billion users), YouTube, SnapChat, TikTok, etc.

Email

One in every 131 emails contain dangerous malware such as ransomware and phishing attacks (Statista), so you should always be vigilant about privacy when using email. For shopping, contest entries, or other commercial online activities, create and use a burner email account you don’t care about. (This can also decrease spam in your “main” email account.)

Email Security: What Is It, And How Do You Improve It?
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Weak or stolen passwords is the most common tactic among cybercriminals. Because 81% of cyberattacks are based on weak or stolen passwords (Statista), the best way to protect your privacy and security is to use a password manager to generate and remember different, complex passwords for each account.

LastPass and 1Password each generate passwords, monitor accounts for security breaches, suggest changing weak passwords, and sync passwords between your computer and phone.

Use two-step authentication whenever it’s offered for your online accounts. Two-step authentication requires you to enter your password and a number only you can access. For extra security, use an app like Google Authenticator to receive the temporary log-in access codes you receive.

Here are three tips to protect your security when using email:

  1. Use strong passwords and change them often (see above)
  2. Avoid public Wi-Fi
  3. Guard your email address: Because cybercriminals constantly troll these venues for victims, don’t share your email address on social media or in blog posts.

Virtual Home Assistants: Mute the “Never-Sleeping Ear”

If you’re concerned about your personal privacy and don’t want anyone recording or listening to your conversations, don’t install or use a Virtual Home Assistant. Always “on” (even when they’re not awake), the devices are always listening but not always transmitting.

“You had to live – did live, from habit that became instinct – in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard.” (Orwell, 1984)

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Amazon has sold more than 100 million Alexa-enabled devices, so you may already “own” one. Using Alexa, Echo, Google Assistant (or other smart devices) is a calculated risk that significantly increases your vulnerability.

Fortunately, we’re not (yet) at this stage of Orwellian intrusiveness.  A few easy steps can help you can protect your privacy and still benefit from your home virtual assistant.

  • Turn off the camera and mics: On the Echo Show and Show 5, use the “off” button on top of the unit. The red LED light visually confirms the mic and camera are disabled.
  • Change your wake word: Open the Alexa app on your mobile device, find your speaker in Devices and choose your new wake word (options: Computer, Amazon, or Echo)
  • Change your privacy settings: Open the Alexa app on your mobile device and tap the menu button on the top left of the screen. (Alexa app > Alexa Account > Alexa Privacy > Manage how your data improves Alexa > Disable the button next to Help Develop New Features > Disable the button next to your name under Use Messages to Improve Transcriptions)
  • Turn off automatic purchasing: Under the Voice Purchasing setting, disable “Purchase by Voice” in the Alexa app. Or create a PIN code to avoid unauthorized purchases. (Alexa app > Settings > Account Settings > Voice Purchasing > Disable Purchase by Voice)

Reviewed offers more details about how to protect your privacy when using an Alexa-enabled Virtual Home Assistant.

One last piece of advice: Put a reminder in your calendar to check your personal digital health around the June Solstice (June 21).

As we use and store more of our PII online, rising cybercrime, ransomware, malware, and data breaches demand that we monitor and manage our personal digital health as diligently as we manager our mental, physical, and spiritual health.

While you can’t make your online security and privacy airtight, you can make it difficult to access. After all, when it comes to protecting your online privacy and security, a little paranoia can be healthy.

About the Author
Bruce Mendelsohn is The Hired Pen, a Communications and Content Development Consultant who works with clients to develop memorable and measurable multimedia content. The Hired Pen offers clients superb oral, written, and digital communications skills to develop and deliver fast, affordable, and effective print, digital, and social media content.
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