Your online data could represent your identity in more ways than you could possibly imagine. It’s not just about your social security number or bank account details. What you browsed online, the prescription medicine you purchased, the movies you watched, and the music you downloaded are all personal data.
But aren’t they just trivial bits of information? The fact is, when combined with other pieces of data, they could become extremely useful for third parties. And when breached, they could severely compromise your privacy and personal safety. This is why protecting yourself from data breaches is crucial to remain safe within the internet and even outside it.
But what is a data breach? It’s when someone gets access to your data, typically identifiable one, without consent: it could be a criminal or just someone nosey. Either way, it won’t serve you well. This is because of the innumerable malicious acts these individuals could perform with your personal information. For instance, they could post it online in a deliberate attempt to harm or humiliate you. This is what experts call doxing. Or they could steal your identity and take out a loan or claim medical insurance. The bottom line is, the outcomes of a data breach could be countless, complex, and sinister.
And the worst part? Drawing a line between what information could potentially cause you harm and what may not is pretty difficult today. Malicious actors could target all sorts of personal data, from your home address, SSN, tax ID, medical records, and account credentials to even your recent purchases, personal interests, and browsing activities. So, the importance of understanding data breaches and protecting your online privacy cannot be stressed enough.
Common causes of data breaches
So, how do data breaches occur? The answer might surprise you. Here are the findings from Verizon’s latest Data Breach Investigations Report (DBIR).
Believe it or not, human error is behind the majority of data leaks. According to Verizon, 85% of breaches in 2020 had a human element. Poor password habits are perhaps the biggest culprit. Unfortunately, a staggering number of people still don’t adopt adequate password protection. For instance, weak credentials, recycling passwords, and even sharing them with others have become common habits for many individuals. Even writing them down or leaving your computer and smartphone unlocked could threaten data safety.
Malware is a popular tool for hackers. For instance, they can launch spyware to sift through sensitive data on your devices. These are then sent off to a remote server and used for various scams. Malware attacks continue to threaten both individuals and organizations across the world. But many of them are hard to catch and could create plenty of havoc before they’re finally identified and removed.
Phishing has grown by 11% during 2020, says Verizon. These types of attacks aim to exploit one of the most common vulnerabilities of human nature: trust. Malicious actors often use social engineering to imitate well-known people and organizations in the hopes of winning your trust. And the convincing nature of phishing scams could easily make you fall for their baits. And if you do, don’t feel bad: even large-scale businesses, from Toyota to Target, have become victims of their deceptive schemes in the past.
Avoiding a data breach
So, can you really dodge these malicious attacks? The answer is yes. You can minimize many of their threats with proper data security practices. Here are the essential steps to eliminate common human errors and guard against malware and phishing attacks.
- Re-evaluate your data-sharing habits. Set some criteria to help guide you. Cover all grounds, from the photos you post on social media to the information you share with retailers. Be particularly careful of emails and calls that request personal data. Keep in mind that once shared, you will have no control over how, when, and by whom it’s used.
- Set up hard-to-guess passwords. Using phrases like “123456” or your date of birth will not help keep your data safe. Two-factor authentication has also become popular on many platforms. So, make use of it wherever it’s available.
- Use a password manager. It can help you avoid many common password mistakes, such as recycling and writing them down.
- Share account credentials with no one, not even your life partner or best friend.
- Keep an eye on your browser. It may be storing much more information than you may suspect. Regularly delete the search history, cookies, and cached files. Deactivate unnecessary browser tools like auto-fills and password saving options.
- Log off from accounts after each use.
- Protect your devices from theft and malicious attacks. Install a strong virus guard. Make use of available device security options, like passwords and biometrics.
- Delete data in old, unused, or obsolete online accounts. Better still, delete the accounts altogether.
- Watch out for email scams. Social engineering has made them extremely hard to identify. So, as a general rule, avoid clicking on links or downloading attachments, even if it seems legit.
- Use a VPN for added security. It can help protect your privacy by concealing your IP address and online activities.
Your data is under constant threat because of hackers, criminals, fraudsters, and many other malicious individuals. It’s because data presents lucrative opportunities for them, usually of financial nature.
Human error, malware, and phishing attacks rank high among the common triggers of data breaches. But remember, a criminal could often use several of these techniques to get hold of your personal information. And there are many types of data with the potential to put you at risk when breached. For example, both your SSN and seemingly innocent posts you put up on social media could leave you equally vulnerable. So, taking a holistic approach to data security is essential to ensure all-around protection for your personal information.