Is your data safe?

How safe is your most important data? Most of us have pretty much given up, knowing that no matter what we do our personal information will be in the hands of three dozen agencies every time we buy something. It’s practically impossible to be “off the grid” now; even if you’re paid in cash and pay for everything in cash there’s still the government to contend with.

It’s not just our financial data that’s “out there,” either. Every time you click on a link, you’re telling a few dozen more agencies about what you like and don’t like. You can turn on your browser’s “private mode” but not everything works. Sooner or later, the internet is going to get to know who you are.

When we talk about “data safety” we’re really talking about two things:

Financial Management
What I mean here is, that your ability to pay for things depends on your having money. If someone steals your passwords and uses them to buy things online, you have no more money. They can wreck your credit, too, making it hard or impossible for you to make a large purchase for years. This is a sort of data safety that you can’t always control. You can scrutinize your bills and keep your passwords private, changing them to something unhackable every few months. Sometimes that’s not enough. Sometimes your data is stored somewhere else and they get hacked.

Loss of financial data isn’t always your fault and in most cases you won’t have to bear the sting of it once it’s been uncovered. It can take a while to work out, though, and while that’s happening you’ll wish you had a stack of $100s under the mattress. Unfortunately, that’s not really more secure, although at least a thief has to get into your house to steal it.

We all know how to prevent our financial data from being stolen, or at least keep it from happening very often. Use strong, secure passwords, avoid dicey-looking sites, and make sure that all your passwords are different. The most common form of data theft comes when a thief steals one of your passwords and uses it to get into dozens of other sites. You should especially make sure your bank password is different from the passwords you use for social networking, because that can be a nightmare.

Reputation management
This one’s a little harder and it’s something we’re just now beginning to understand. It turns out that posting those pictures of you in a bikini (or less) on your trip to Cabo might be a bad idea. We’re just now beginning to understand that the internet keeps everything forever and if you say something on social networking, it can come back to hurt you a long time in the future.

Right now, in most cases it’s legal for an employer to investigate your social profiles and even fire you for representing the company poorly online. After all, you tell your Facebook friends where you work and they tell their friends. It may not be legal in the future to discriminate against you for how you spend your personal time, but for now it is.

And you know what — it doesn’t matter. We’re all realizing at the same time that we might not want our entire histories online. Twenty years from now, we could have a presidential candidate who went to Mardi Gras and posted about it on Instagram. We could have someone who wants to run a huge corporation who posted pro-drug messages on Facebook. This isn’t science fiction, it’s a matter of time.

So, the best way of managing your reputation is just to be smart. Using fake profiles will only get you so far… sooner or later someone will connect them to you. When you’re on social media, you’re speaking in public; don’t say stupid stuff. It’s just that simple.

There’s another type of data safety and that’s the theft of routine information like photos and schoolwork. A lot of us keep that stuff in the cloud and we don’t worry about it because we’re not celebrities. No one cares that much that they would share that stuff everywhere. Until… if you’re lucky enough to become famous… Again, don’t take the kind of pictures or post the kind of information that could get you in trouble later.

The world is a very different place now than it was even ten years ago and we’re all learning. By being smart, by thinking before we post, and by following simple rules, our data can be as safe as possible.