03/29/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

How to Keep Your Privacy Private: January 28, 2010 - Data Privacy Day

Privacy. Is it important to you and your family? I've given the topic a bit of thought, but if you haven't, you're not alone.

I believe that you are the most important person to protect your own privacy. To accomplish this goal, it's important to know how you are sharing your information, how others are sharing your information and, ultimately, how your information is being utilized. Some would say that it's difficult to know in this digital age; others would say it has always been. It is difficult - but not insurmountable. With a bit of awareness and education it's within our collective capacity to develop a better understanding so that we reduce the frequency with which we effectively shoot ourselves in the foot, both accidentally and seemingly on purpose.

Let's start with the basics. How do you project information about yourself to others in the normal course of your day? At your residence, is your mailbox or front door adorned with your family's name? When you discard mail or files, do you toss the paper intact into the trash and recycling bin? When you make a purchase at a store, when the clerk requests your phone number, do you provide it? What data do you include in application forms filed for your children's activities? If you let a valet park your car, what data is available for perusal in the glove compartment? If your billfold should drop from your pocket or bag, what data has just gone missing? Take a moment and reflect at the variety and volume of actions and interactions in your daily life that involve your personal data. Which actions result in allowing unencumbered access to your data by those to whom you haven't granted explicit permission?

Think about what you carry as you go about your day. Laptops and smart-phones keep us connected, store our contacts and data, and enable new levels of creativity. And we lose these devices by the thousands every week. A 2008 study showed a whopping 12,000 laptops are lost or stolen every week from within US airports. I have difficulty imagining the scale of lost laptops if all possible venues and circumstances were included. Now if you're one of those souls whose laptop went missing, you no doubt went through a triage: Encrypted? Fiscal data? Business data? Employee data? Partner data? Reporting Requirement?

Think about the state of the device you are using to read this piece. What data is on the device? What data is on your devices or those your family? If any or all information were lost, how much of your personal information would also be lost and therefore exploitable?

Even assuming you never lose a device, do you make yourself vulnerable when you connect online? Do you present your data for others to use in a manner in which you never intended? When you fill out a "profile" form on a website, do you first do research to determine who else may be able to see this information? Or perhaps a more appropriate question may be: "Do you know how the information is protected and how it will be used?"

It behooves us all to fully understand that we are sharing information that can and will be used by others to cull, collect and collate. Legitimate uses include those that are revealed to you, such as, "We will use your information to enhance your experience and provide recommendations to you." Illegitimate uses may include a blatant disregard for such statements where the host declares that your information will never be shared, but sells it to third parties nonetheless. And don't forget, there are those who truly don't have your best interests at heart, as they mine the information that you have made available for the taking. Without your "privacy" settings in appropriate order, your data is available to all.

January 28 is Data Privacy Day. What better day to initiate a review of our online profile and your information disposal methodologies. Cisco's recent white paper on privacy contains some excellent data tips on how to browse anonymously and other methods you can use to protect yourself from the criminal element that is surfing the net right along with you and your family.

I advocate the following:
  • Ask how your data will be used, under what circumstances, and by whom.
  • For those who use peer-to-peer software in your home: Review the settings in detail, as an incorrect setting can open your system to an outside entity.
  • Do you have a wireless network? Suppress the Service Set Identifier Data (SSID), limit access to specific MAC addresses, and use WPA2 encryption with strong passwords. A strong password consists of more than eight, preferably 14 characters consisting of symbols, numbers, and letters (which isn't a word from a dictionary of any language). This will greatly reduce the likelihood of unauthorized access by criminals.
  • Data destruction: Shred your paper copy data; degauss or destroy your magnetic media prior to recycling. Don't allow a physical harvest of your data.
  • Do others use your computer? If you allow visitors to use your computer or wireless network and you share the primary passwords, change them following each use.
  • Encryption: I advocate encryption, with a robust strong key phrase for your important data. Data or full-disk encryption, the choice is yours.

When using social media, be mindful of the amount of specific data about you and your family you are placing for all to see. If you "tag" your children's photos, you've identified by name your child for all to admire, but there are some whom you truly don't wish simply to do so.

Remember social media is a wondrous means to communicate, and as my good friend professor Rebecca Herold notes, "Your updates are streaming out into the Internet and are like a soft drink spilt into the ocean; you can never completely recover the soft drink, nor can you stop it from spreading and becoming a part of the digital ocean." I know there are other perspectives on the topic and welcome readers to actively comment and provide their perspectives.