Guard your personal data closely


This is not going to be a rant about how many of us use, and rely on, social media, but it does seem like we have lost our way a bit when it comes to keeping what matters private.

It’s as much an appeal for common sense as it is one of our suggested rules for staying safer online because this one, actually, doesn’t just apply to what we do online. With the companies that we all have to interact with to keep our homes financed, warm, furnished, safe, the water running, the lights on, the car running, our bank accounts open … whether we deal with them online or not, our personal data is already spread across a vast range of different businesses, systems and platforms. All of those, in 2019, will be connected to the internet in some way or other so, whether we like it or not, our personal information is out there, vulnerable in a way that it wasn’t – even relatively recently.

It might just be for that reason that it’s almost as if, in some respects, we’ve given-up – given-up caring who sees and holds our personal data.

That is why we are urging you to think again, and start taking back more control of what data you allow to be seen, stored and used by those that help you keep your home and life running.

Nostalgic? Not a bit

The problem is, being able to do more online means that we can do so many more things when it suits us, 24/7, rather than having to wait for 9am to pick up the phone or, heaven forbid, write an email or even a letter. We now seem to equate “doing more online” with letting those that we need or want to communicate with online have complete control over our data. How is that right?

Not even 10 years ago, how many companies would have known anything more than your name and postal address? It wasn’t that long ago that it was really only your bank, and maybe some government organisations that would require your date of birth, your mother’s maiden name and the place you were born. Pretty much, that was the limit of the depth of personal, private information you were asked to share.

A little longer ago, that information was probably held on paper file in metal cabinets locked deep away in a strong office somewhere – the only real risk to it was if one careless individual lost it, or if it went up in flames. It wasn’t vulnerable to millions of people worldwide trying to access it every second of every day.

By comparison, it was almost like it, and you, didn’t really exist … not to people who didn’t actually know you.

I don’t claim any nostalgia for that time – if you also remember that you had to go and wait for a cashier to be ready to serve you; at the bank just to set-up a monthly payment, or to pay your electricity or gas bill; or, in a shop, just to go and buy half-a-dozen eggs. There is no doubt that the convenience that being a part of the online ecosystem brings is one that we wouldn’t want to be without.

Yet that shouldn’t mean that we have to give-in to it completely either.

Roll forward to 2019, and think of all the companies and businesses that you interact with to do all the same things that you had to do “manually” before and consider just how much information they now hold on you. How many different sites, when asked for “additional security questions” have you rested on the habit and given your mother’s maiden name or the place you were born to – so that those sites too now hold the same information only your bank used to know? By the way, without stating the obvious, please try and pick any other “additional security questions” than the ones you’ve already given to your bank or other financial or government institution – it narrows the chance of identity theft or fraud just a little bit.

It’s more important than it has ever been to keep certain things private

And then of course there’s social media. Quite apart from the life-long swathes of information that just signing-up invites you to provide, there’s all the constant updates and photos that you might be posting daily that also chip-away at the privacy of your own life. From the obvious, like posting pictures of being away on holiday (and therefore suggesting your home is empty) to the slightly less obvious of a picture at home with a calendar behind you that reminds you, and now everyone else seeing the photo, exactly when that holiday is about to happen.

If a hacker has, for whatever random reason, decided to target you for their next project, one of the first places they’ll look is your social media profile. Maybe they picked-up some of your log-in details from somewhere on the dark web, and they now want to complete their picture of you to enable wider or more thorough intrusion into your life, one of the first places they’ll look is at your social media presence.


Here’s just one example – hackers know that people with pets or children are likely to base their passwords around the names of those closest to them. Similarly, they know that if they see a picture of you at home and the number of the property is visible (it could be on an envelope or package in the stack of mail in the background!), those numbers are often in passwords too. As is your date (or at least the year) of birth. As, often, is your “favourite” place to go on holiday.

With those few bits of information, they can crunch millions of different combinations (in seconds) and it is staggering just how many times they will be able to “generate” the password you’ve been using for ages. Just think then if you use that password across many or all of the online accounts you have access to …?

Just take a few extra seconds to think first

By the way, that doesn’t mean that you can’t or shouldn’t post pictures of your kids or pets – that decision is entirely yours. However, perhaps it suggests the following:

  • Using your kids’ or pets’ names in your passwords is probably not the safest thing to do, so change them (suggestions for how you might do that here), and
  • You should think very carefully about the “whole picture” when you’re posting about you or your family online. Scrutinise individual photos for things you might casually be giving away. On top of that, look at your recent posts as a group in case they say something more – collectively – than you might previously have considered.

If you put yourself in the category of someone who is happy to share much or all of what they do online, then just taking the time to think that little bit more before you post your next update might start to shift how much of what you put out there is useful to people who might eventually use it against you.

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