More and more people are connected via only a handful of social media sites nowadays as almost everyone has some sort of social profile that others can visit and use for various purposes. If on the one hand these accounts are surely good means of keeping up with the latest news and chatting with friends, on the other hand they are also massive data gatherers that can have pretty harmful outcomes if something goes wrong.
Such issues can include data breaches or company acquisitions and the moment you create an account on social media you’re saying goodbye to the little privacy that you still have left. And since the appropriate law to fight and mitigate this issue is still not in place in the U.S., don’t think that deleting your profile will be enough as other sites, apps and services can gather more info than you’d expect.
Data Gathering and Breaches
For those unfamiliar with it, Exactis is a marketing and data aggregation firm from Florida that actively collects all sorts of things about U.S. residents. This includes such information as people’s home and email addresses, phone numbers and much more, which isn’t much different to what we’re already used to. However, what’s most impressive about Exactis’s data gathering skills is just how well the company does justice to its name. To explain: more than just this ‘trivial’ information, Exactis applies hundreds of variables to gather specific details about different personal characteristics of everyone, like someone’s religion, if a person is an active smoker or owns any pets, alongside any personal interests. The gender and age of someone’s children is also included within this information.
This alone is a real shocker but what’s even worse is that Vinny Troia, a security researcher, found out that two terabytes of data is out in the open on the internet. This corresponds to close to 340 million records – including personal information of individuals but of businesses as well – that’s lying on an unprotected server that, according to Troia, is fairly easy to access. He even told WIRED that it “seems like this is a database with pretty much every US citizen in it”, and when asked about a test he delivered accurate results for six out of ten individuals.
How exactly the firm has gathered such data is unknown but the good news is that it shouldn’t be possible for anyone to have their identity stolen by hackers – at least directly – since there is no information about credit card details or Social Security numbers having been collected. However, scammers are creative and the rest of this info is more than enough to fool anyone about a serious threat.
Voluntarily Handing Over Data
The Exactis data breach is now solved and it’s now no more than another example of how little control someone has over their data. But worse yet is how on top of these silent gathering techniques that get more crafty each day is how many people voluntarily hand over their details on social media. The Cambridge Analytica scandal was to be expected and more than just exposing the vulnerabilities of the largest social network in the world, it made many people delete their accounts in hopes of reclaiming some privacy – though we all know how well this works.
Deleting Facebook from our lives is just the tip of the iceberg because many other services also use other privacy invasion techniques. Even when companies are acquired, for instance, their users’ data is often migrated to the new owner, which not only means that your details are handed over to a company that you didn’t entrust them with in the first place but that data can be intercepted in the process, too.
The Importance of VPNs and Regulation on Privacy
Whenever a case like Cambridge Analytica’s or Exactis’s happens, it’s impossible not to think about the lack of proper regulation regarding privacy and data collection in the U.S. In May 2018, all the countries within the European Union started operating under the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which forces companies to notify and ask permission for their clients about collecting, storing and sharing their information. This doesn’t prevent any data breaches, of course, but at least provides some insight on how a user’s data is being handled.
In turn, people are left turning to alternative measures to protect themselves as much as possible. Sailing for a deserted island and leaving the internet completely is not an option for the vast majority, so VPNs and password managers are more important than ever. While the former allows for surfing the web anonymously and protects your information with strong encryption levels, the latter locks all of your login credentials behind a master password that only you have access to. This allows, for instance, you to securely manage your bank account online while using public Wi-Fi without having to type the necessary credentials manually into the website for easier access.
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