Sharing your data online: how to stay safe

Sharing your data online: how to stay safe

You don’t actually need to tell everyone your first pet, mother’s maiden name and date of birth you know…

Felicity Hannah

Rights, Scams and Politics

Felicity Hannah
Updated on 8 May 2018

We give a lot of ourselves away online, don’t we? From the names of our pets to the birthdays of our children, we hand over extraordinary amounts of data to our friends and networks – but also to the platforms we publish through.

That’s been in the news a lot just recently, thanks to the data scandal unfolding at Facebook.

There’s also just growing awareness of the extent to which our data can be used.

In fact, I wrote about last month about the importance of valuing our data and treating it as a currency with real worth, rather than something we just drip all over the internet.

But this growing sense of unease about the amount of personal data we typically share online has made me wonder whether we need to be even more careful.

Instead of being more careful what data we share, perhaps we need to simply cultivate a fake persona to keep us safe.

Now read: How to stay safe from Facebook investment scams

Be creative with some of your data

To be clear, I am not suggesting you share incorrect data with banks or other financial service providers. That would technically be fraud and would most likely mean you were refused any financial products anyway.

But for other commercial businesses that have no real need to know your data but want it anyway. There are often good incentives for sharing information with online businesses like social media platforms and retailers you use to shop online.

Perhaps they offer a freebie or vouchers on your birthday, or the chance of discounts or special events if you sign up to their newsletter.

Maybe they want you to provide an answer to a security question so you can log into their site even if you forget your password in the future.

However, when it comes to any commercial or social organisation, why do you need to give them your mother’s actual maiden name? Or your actual birthday? Or your regular email address?

After all, it’s all too common for retailers and other big businesses to get hacked and lose their data to criminals.

The more information about you those criminals have, the greater the risk they can contact you and pose as your bank or another provider – or even hack your identity.

Research from Which? showed last year that almost one in 10 people who shared their data online believe they have already been the victim of a data breach. Three-quarters of people say they’re worried that they could be at risk of a leak.

And that’s with good cause. In September last year, the credit agency Equifax revealed it had lost the data of 143 million customers to hackers.

In the same year Yahoo! had to admit that three billion of its user accounts had been compromised, although at least that breach didn’t include passwords and payment details.

Those major data breaches make headline news but then there’s a constant stream of smaller-scale data losses from corporations. They’re not massive but each and every time they make their customers more susceptible to being socially engineered or having their identities stolen and abused.

For example, Pizza Hut’s website and app was reportedly hacked last year, meaning both delivery addresses and card numbers were potentially compromised.

And Wonga had to admit that a data breach could have compromised the data of up to 245,000 customers.

Customers really should be able to order a pizza, use an email account and manage their finances without running the risk of fraudsters.

Why not create a fake identity that you stick with online – a fake-news persona that you use to keep safe while still enjoying all the benefits of sharing data.

What to change

You’re always going to have to share your credit or debit card details online if you want to make use of the internet to shop and pay bills. That’s pretty unavoidable.

But you don’t have to make it easier for hackers by sharing information about your mother’s maiden name, your real date of birth, your likes and dislikes, your first pet’s name or anything else.

The more data you leave out there, the more you risk leaving yourself open to more sophisticated attacks.

And it’s so easy to create a list of alternative, non-compromising information.

You can set up a separate, free email address that you use for all your subscriptions and to provide when companies ask for your details to qualify for a discount or special offer. A neat, simple way to separate your personal from your commercial interests.

Secondly, your mother’s maiden name can just be given as Smith or similar – use something you can consistently remember.

For a date of birth, give a false one that you’ll remember easily, perhaps a famous date or perhaps one that’s just a digit different to your real one. Heck, you could give Christmas day on the year you were born if you like, the data is being captured and automatically used, not scrutinised.

Why give Facebook or Twitter your real date of birth? Is it really worth the risk of sharing that personal information just so some guy you went to school with can send you a birthday cat gif? Nope.

And when you sign up to a Wi-Fi hotspot, for example, you’ll be asked to share your name, address and date of birth via an unsecured network. Have your alternative facts ready and you’re reducing the risk of fraud.

Taking charge

We need to take charge of our data but we live in a world where we’re expected to share it. So by creating a fake news you, you add a layer of protection between you and the thieves who want to exploit your data to steal from you.

You also protect yourself from those who want to compromise your credit record by using your details to steal from someone else.

It’s not a failsafe, of course, but it helps close off one route for fraudsters. It may also remind you that your data is valuable and shouldn’t be shared if you don’t need to.

Now read: A hacker’s guide to keeping your data – and money – safe from online fraudsters

What do you think? Are you comfortable sharing your real details? Have you created a fake persona? Have your say using the comments below.

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