Privacy in the age of oversharing: How you can protect your personal information

Last December, a mass shooting in San Bernardino, Calif. killed 14 people and injured 22, taking its place as the deadliest terror attack on U.S. soil since Sept. 11, 2001, according to CBS news. While the shooting will certainly be a point of interest historically, due to its tragic repercussions, the event called attention to a separate issue – privacy and technology.

According to BBC.com, the police acquired possession of the shooters’, married couple Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik, iPhone that officials suspected had information about a third assailant in the attack. The FBI and the government disputed with Apple; the government asked Apple to assist them in unlocking the phone, and Apple refused. The technology giant claimed that they didn’t know how to gain access to the phone and felt that it “was wrong and would set a dangerous precedent” in technological security.

Today, technology is a natural part of our lives – it has changed the way we work, relax and communicate, and with any good development comes unexpected challenges. With technology, privacy and security is the challenge we face, and it’s not to be taken lightly.

In Lansing, Mich., it can be easy to feel as though we are exempt from many of the dangers that the rest of the world faces. Cities like Washington D.C., New York and even San Bernardino seem more at-risk for something like a cyberattack or even a terror attack.

The fact is, access to the Internet from our mobile and home devices has brought the world closer than ever – meaning information and news is much more current. However, that same fact is what enables a person from across the globe to access your personal device, and in turn, your personal information.

For example, in April 2016, The Lansing Board of Water & Light (BWL) fell victim to a large-scale cyberattack, said to have been caused by a growing security threat called “ransomware.” Ransomware is a virus that acts as an “infection,” encrypting files on computers, effectively locking them to anyone who wants to access them. According to the Lansing State Journal, the hackers who create Ransomware often demand payment in order to decrypt the infected files.

The attack caused BWL to shut down its accounting system and email services for about 250 employees. Dick Peffley, BWL general manager, told the Lansing State Journal that the attack “essentially locked them out of [their] own system.”

We reached out to Stephen Serkaian, BWL executive director of Public Affairs, to see if he would share facts surrounding the incident. Due to the pending investigation of the attack, he was advised by police not to comment on any details, however he did offer one piece of advice to other business owners who might be concerned about something like this happening to them.

“My advice would be to talk to a computer expert about what issues they’ve seen with their other clients,” said Serkaian. “Ask them what they recommend you do to protect yourself and your company.”

Local expert, Ian Richardson, founder of Doberman Technologies LLC (not associated with BWL), noted that both large and small businesses and individuals are at-risk for attacks such as this, and they aren’t to be taken lightly.

“These aren’t kids messing around in someone’s basement trying to make a little extra cash,” said Richardson. “These are knowledgeable, organized groups from Russia, China or Eastern Europe intentionally going after these people. It’s a new era of organized crime.”

Richardson also noted that it doesn’t matter if you are a small business, a large company or an individual, they are all treated the same by hackers. His advice – to treat yourself as though you are a large important business and invest in security procedures.

“You’re goal is to not be the easiest house to break into on the block,” explained Richardson. “Make it difficult for hackers to access you by constantly backing up your information and getting a professional IT provider to help audit your network. Research best practices in every area of your technology and don’t click on a link or open an attachment if it’s foreign to you.”

According to David Smith, owner of Capitol Macintosh, there are three key challenges facing technology users today in terms of privacy and security; the first has to do with pop-ups and messages from people and sites that the user isn’t familiar with.

“Phishers are getting very sophisticated,” said Smith. “If users read the message they’re getting, they would know it isn’t legitimate.”

His advice on how to deal with this issue is to be careful about what you click on. Pop-up messages and emails from unknown people or sites are most likely unfriendly – in this case, reading and thinking through what the message means before clicking on it might be your best defense against these intruders.

The second challenge Smith sees arising in the industry has to do with how much information you should share with companies you work with.

“The information companies want to glean from users is challenging: you can share it and they can then ‘see’ what you’re doing, which can give the user a better Internet experience, but at the cost of sharing what you’re doing,” said Smith.

He noted that TV cable companies are “in this game,” sharing information with the company can give you a better Internet or cable experience, meaning everything you do is tailored to your specific interests. Think Pinterest; the more recipes you pin on your “recipe board,” the more recipe and cooking pins show up on your news feed. The issue that arises with this is that the company now knows everything you’re doing, watching, Googling, etc.

From that challenge comes the third challenge: The sheer amount of information pushed at consumers and users. Back to the Pinterest example, your feed is overwhelmed with recipes and cooking pins, but out of all of that, it’s difficult to determine what you actually want to see and what is just sort-of related and is being sent to you because of that.

“The volume of information pushed to users or that we pull from the Internet is ever-increasing making it difficult to sort through what’s valid and important and what’s not,” said Smith, also commenting on how that effects businesses as well.

“There’s an endless amount of useless information,” he continued. “For a retailer, like us, it’s difficult to get in front of potential customers with your message.”

While these challenges may seem more consumer-based, it’s important to remember that online consumers are the major at-risk demographic for cybersecurity and privacy attacks because of their online presence and the amount of confidential information that they are required to provide in order to shop, reserve or even (in some cases) research online.

According to Statistics.com, the top tasks people use the Internet and mobile devices for are emails, working, using social media and online shopping, with a PC or a laptop being the most preferred device in their respective categories by at least 10 percent.

The top four tasks – emailing, working, using social media and online shopping – all require users to provide either personal information or information pertaining to their business or employer, putting them and/or their employer at-risk for security or privacy breaches.

So how can we make sure that our devices are secure? Smith says, “Back up, back up, back up.”

“We can’t say it often enough. If your data is very important, back it up to an offsite computer, storage device or the Cloud.”

Smith also noted the importance of having a password, as well as making sure that no programs or webpages automatically open upon turning on your device, particularly social media, banking apps and email.

Privacy, security and technology issues can be intimidating. You may wish to contact a local expert that can help you or your business with any issues or questions you may have.

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Megan Martin

Megan Martin

Megan Martin is a Communications Specialist at M3 group and a graduate of Calvin College in Grand Rapids. She is a foodie who loves art, tea, and anything outdoorsy.

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