These 6 Tips Will Help Keep Your Personal Data Private

Data miners and cybercriminals are after you. Here are easy ways to fight back.

Bree Fowler Senior Writer
Bree Fowler writes about cybersecurity and digital privacy. Before joining CNET she reported for The Associated Press and Consumer Reports. A Michigan native, she's a long-suffering Detroit sports fan, world traveler, wannabe runner and champion baker of over-the-top birthday cakes and all-things sourdough.
Expertise cybersecurity, digital privacy, IoT, consumer tech, smartphones, wearables
Bree Fowler
4 min read
Data Privacy Day logo

It's time to take a look at where your data is and who has access.


Data Privacy Day is a completely made-up holiday, but it's as good a time as any to take a hard look at your online life and shore up your efforts to protect your personal digital privacy. 

The annual occasion in late January, which is feted by cybersecurity and digital privacy enthusiasts worldwide, began in the US and Canada back in 2008. It's an extension of a European commemoration marking 1981's Convention 108, the first legally binding international treaty on protecting privacy and data.

It's a reminder to take stock of where your personal data is and who has access to it. Keeping tabs on that data is especially important these days given the continued shift to hybrid work setups for many people, pushing them online more than ever before and further blurring the line between work and home.

Ahead of this year's Data Privacy Day, Apple released a humorous video starring Nick Mohammed, better known as Nate from the popular Apple TV Plus series Ted Lasso. promoting the ways its users can boost their digital privacy. The company also announced that it would start holding free classes at its stores focused on the iPhone's privacy features.

Regardless of what kind of device you're using, a few simple measures like setting good passwords for each of your accounts and enabling two-factor authentication whenever possible can go a long way toward boosting security, said Chester Wisniewski, field chief technology officer for applied research at security company Sophos.

It's also important to remember that protecting your data and privacy means not just keeping your information safe from cybercriminals, but also making sure you aren't sharing more than you need to with tech giants and other data harvesters.

That includes limiting what you post on social media, said Justin Fier, senior vice president of red team operations for the cybersecurity company Darktrace.

"It's gotten so out of hand, this sharing of information about ourselves," Fier said. "It's OK to still have a little mystery about yourselves and have a little privacy."

Here are a few easy ways to safeguard your data and privacy.

Set good passwords. Long, random and unique passwords are best. Don't be tempted to recycle an old one, even if it's great. Yes, that can be a lot to deal with. That's where password managers come in. They'll do the remembering for you.

From there, you can take a largely hands-off approach. Gone are the days when security experts would recommend they'd be changed every 90 days, Wisniewski said. Now, the emphasis is on length. Unless they're compromised, you can largely set them and forget them.

Turn on two-factor authentication. This technique requires entering a second identifier -- like a biometric, app notification or a physical key -- in addition to your password. This will go a long way toward protecting you if your password gets compromised. 

Note: Avoid using SMS messages for two-factor authentication. Why? SIM swapping, in which cybercriminals steal your phone number by calling your wireless provider and having it switch your number to a new phone and SIM card. It does happen, and if criminals take over your phone number, they'll get that text message too.

Keep an eye on your accounts. Monitor your bank and credit accounts for potentially fraudulent charges. If you don't expect to be applying for credit anytime soon, freeze your credit reports. If a company offers you free credit monitoring because of a data breach or for any other reason, sign up for it, Fier said.

Lock down your social media accounts. Make sure the only "friends" you're sharing your information with are your actual friends. Even then, be careful what you disclose, especially when it comes to social media quizzes and other games. Seemly innocuous bits of information like the make and model of your first car or the elementary school you attended could be used to hack your passwords down the road, because those facts are often used in security checks.

Audit your logins and apps. Using Facebook or Google to automatically log in to your apps and websites gives them access to more of your data. Think twice before you do it. Not using an app anymore? Delete it and take away its access to the data you agreed to share when you first downloaded it.

Update everything. This doesn't just apply to your operating systems and antivirus software. Your router, apps and all of those "internet of things" devices also need to be up to date. Patches to fix bugs and security problems can't help you if you don't install them. If you don't know how to update your router, call your ISP or check online.