Why Online Privacy Matters for Everyone—Yes, Even You

online privacy threats

What do you think of when you think of online privacy? Government surveillance? Data breaches? Advertiser tracking?

The fact is that threats from lax online security are varied and affect people from all walks of life. Often, these privacy threats are associated with the government, forms of surveillance, and are dismissed with a shrug and the comforting idea that one has nothing to hide from whomsoever might hack into their private information.

Unfortunately, the true nature of these threats is sometimes more nefarious than people assume and the fact is, most privacy attacks are executed by corporate negligence and individual hackers—not Big Brother.

How Is My Personal Data Vulnerable?

Every time we engage online, we are putting our personal data at risk.

Of course, there are numerous things each of us can do to reduce our risk of privacy abuse—limiting one’s online presence, creating and storing passwords securely, using two-factor authentication, blocking and removing cookies, as well as using tools like VPNs and antivirus apps.

Despite all these measures, personal data is constantly under threat. Primarily from lack of appropriate corporate security and diligence and hacking.

Corporate Negligence and Privacy Risk

Sometimes businesses really mess up. Big breaches like the 2017 Equifax Breach, which compromised the most personal identifying information of over 200,000 people, are increasingly common. Here are 3 examples of paralyzing data breaches.

Terrifyingly, these mistakes go beyond mere security software breaches. With the recent Spectre and Meltdown vulnerabilities affecting your computer’s CPU, details in hardware creation have also put your personal data at risk on almost every device you own. Seriously.

How Do Hackers Get Access to Your Information?

As if this weren’t enough to draw concern for online privacy, there are hackers and their technology is advancing rapidly. Hackers no longer have to spend hours staring at computer code to gain access to a person’s computer; now, they can simply write automatic programs to do the work for them. These include (but are not limited to):

  • “Checker” Scripts: These scripts work by trying out username and password combinations on popular websites using information obtained when people sign up for new accounts.  
  • Malware and Malvertising: Malware is software designed to infect your computer in an attempt to gain personal information such as Social Security Numbers, bank account information, and other things. Malvertising is the embeds malware into advertising on generally trusted websites to infect the computers of unsuspecting people.
  • Phishing Emails: These are emails that often look legitimate and lead to similarly seemingly legitimate websites, where people are prompted to enter their login information. If they supply these details, it is tracked and stored then used elsewhere by hackers.

Furthermore, most cyber criminals aren’t rare, brilliant programmers. Anyone can be a hacker. All you really need is an internet connection, plus some malicious code easily accessible on the dark web or an automated exploit kit to do all the work.

The Costs of Poor Online Privacy and Security

It’s easy for people to say, “I have nothing to hide, so I’m not worried about the implications of shrinking online privacy.” This is especially true of issues of surveillance and data mining. However, there are real consequences when privacy and security are breached.

Loss of privacy can translate to loss of freedoms, such as freedoms of expression, assembly and association.

Awareness of surveillance and exposure to data mining can cause people to censor their own activity online, which limits freedom. Likewise, people can become less likely to associate with others, because they’re worried about how those relationships might look on paper. In that same vein, people can also become less likely to participate in activities, such as a protest, because of the concern of how that might look as well.

Just because we trust the current systems in place, i.e. who has access to our data, doesn’t mean those systems will always be benevolent or functional. If we continue to give away data about the ins and outs of our lives at this rate, it could eventually be used against us.

Common Behaviors That Increase Vulnerability

It’s one thing to understand that privacy and security online are important. It’s another thing to do something about it. Unfortunately, many of us practice bad “online security and privacy hygiene.”

How many of these are you guilty of?

  • Using the same passwords and username for all accounts. While using the same username and password combinations for a myriad of accounts can make it easier to remember your login information, it decreases internet security exponentially.
  • Opening email attachments or downloading information from unknown or untrusted sources. Viruses and malware are easily concealed within email attachments which means opening unexpected or unknown attachments could lead to a computer virus. Furthermore, downloading information or programs from untrusted sources can also lead to a computer virus as viruses are easily embedded and disguised as desirable content.
  • Staying logged into websites and leaving web pages open, especially on public computers. Staying logged into websites on public computers can leave your accounts open for any other users to access. Remaining logged in to accounts with sensitive information can also be unwise on a private computer in the event of a hacker gaining access to the computer.
  • Clicking “Agree” to Terms of Use Without Reading. When you click “agree” without understanding the Terms of Use, you put yourself at great risk. The truth is that you legally grant service providers and companies access to all sorts of data. Heaven forbid that company were to ever have a security concern and your data would be at risk. More likely, you’ve given away your data for sale to the highest advertising bidder.  
  • Not Understanding Trust Seals. Trust seals are labels from quality control firms that help assure safety and compliance with various security measures. You’ll often see trust seals on payment pages. However, not all trust seals are created equally and many are forged. Here is what you need to know about trust seals to stay safe.

Not sure if your privacy is really at risk? Take our You vs. Hackers Quiz to find out!

How to Protect Privacy and Security Online

Here at StopAd, we take privacy and security pretty seriously. It’s one of the reasons we built an ad blocker that helps prevent malvertising attacks. We’ve also written a lot of great material on how to stay safe online.

The Ultimate Guide to Data Protection

Here are the basics:

  • Change your password frequently, and don’t share it with anyone. This is especially important if you frequently use a public computer so no one can gain access. Using a password with a mix of letters, numbers and special characters can make it more difficult to break. Not reusing the same passwords over and over again, as discussed previously, will also increase online security. Services such as LastPass, a password management service, keeps track of passwords, helps to craft stronger passwords and generating passwords.
  • Use anti-virus software. An antivirus program will protect your computer for viruses and malware found in email and on the web.
  • Use spam filters. Filters like this will keep unwanted email with malicious attachments out of your email inbox and make you less likely to open unknown or unwanted attachments. In fact, there are loads of helpful things you can do to improve email security.  
  • Avoid using accounts with sensitive information and transmitting sensitive information over unsecured networks, like public wi-fi. Anyone can connect to a public network, which means there is a possibility for someone to access your information as well as access the internet using your computer, potentially doing illegal things under the guise of your IP address. It doesn’t hurt to make sure your home wireless router is encrypted as well.

Is online privacy important for you? What tips do you find the most useful?