In the old days, protecting your privacy didn’t take much. It was a matter of keeping your social security card, birth certificate, driving license, and a few other documents safe. But today, the very definition of personally identifiable information or PII has become hard to decipher as an infinite number of interconnected data have come together to define our identities.
Take a look at how the US Department of Homeland Security defines it: “(PII is) any information that permits the identity of an individual to be directly or indirectly inferred, including any information that is linked or linkable to that individual…”. Now, that’s a pretty broad definition by any standards.
The truth is, the types of data you could use to identify someone are surprisingly broad and diverse today, making it near impossible to specify them. In other words, your phone number, email address, credit card number, biometrics, medical records, and online account login credentials can all come under personally identifiable information. Some of these didn’t even exist a few decades back. And these identifiable data will continue to evolve and grow in numbers as time goes by.
In such an environment, protecting your PII is not going to be easy. Naturally, the more identifiable information you have, the greater the threats there would be. And they’ll require extraordinary measures to keep them safe. So, what should you do to protect your identity? Let’s take a look.
Data storage: keeping your PII safe
Many people keep sensitive documents locked in a cupboard or personal safe. If you’re already doing this, too, then you’ve taken the first step of safe data storage.
But the effectiveness of this practice will depend on the type of documents you’ve chosen to protect. Locking your social security card in a drawer and leaving your bank statements lying around on your desk will not assure data privacy. Bank statements contain plenty of identifiable data, too, from your name and address to bank account numbers. So, it’s important to determine all types of documents that could potentially compromise your identity and keep them safely tucked away to prevent unauthorized access.
Now, some of these documents and data might be in digital form. Here are some essential practices to ensure their safety.
- Avoid storing PII in laptops, tabs, and smartphones. Devices you use regularly run a higher risk of experiencing malware attacks and theft, which could compromise data security.
- Take backups of all sensitive files and keep them stored somewhere safe and away from the storage location of the original files.
- Avoid uploading sensitive data to cloud storage spaces such as Google Drive, Dropbox, and OneDrive.
- Keep files and storage devices protected with strong passwords and two-factor authentication where available.
- Install virus guards on all devices to prevent a malicious attack.
- Turn off data collection and sharing permissions on your online accounts and devices. It will allow you to keep your identifiable data and online activities safe and prevent unauthorized access.
Data sharing: keeping information private
Data sharing is one of the most common causes of PII breaches. Many people have adopted a carefree approach to sharing personal information, primarily due to a lack of understanding of the types of identifiable data that could compromise their safety. Today, passive data sharing is a serious issue. It can lead to identity theft and a host of other troubles. Companies and individuals collect identifiable data with various motives. So, it’s essential to adopt a more guarded approach to data sharing to keep your PII safe.
- Never share identifiable information over the phone or in emails, even if you think you recognize the person initiating the request. Phishing scams designed to extract personal data are extremely common and could be pretty convincing.
- Avoid sharing account passwords with family members, friends, or work colleagues. Failure to do this will increase the risks of data breaches.
- Be mindful of what you share on social media. Even an innocent photo could reveal much more to a criminal than you might imagine.
- Minimize online account sign-ups, whether to purchase groceries, watch a movie, or receive a daily newsfeed. You can do this by limiting your activities to a few online services. For example, choose a vendor who could provide multiple services, so you wouldn’t need to sign up with several retailers. If you can access a service without opening an account, then choose that option to avoid sharing your PII.
- Be particularly wary of anything offered free. These are common marketing tactics devised to collect personal information.
- Spend some time to understand the data use, protection, and sharing policies of organizations before handing over any personally identifiable data. Ask questions and clarify if anything seems unclear or vague.
- Delete cookies and search history in your browser and deactivate the auto-fill functions. These are all passive data sharing methods that allow companies to track personal information.
- Avoid storing sensitive data such as passwords and bank account details, and credit card numbers on your browser, websites, and apps.
Data disposal: safe disposal of identifiable information
How you discard documents could get you into trouble, too. For instance, when you throw an old bank statement into the trash, you’re creating an opportunity for a criminal to access your name and bank account numbers. Now, that’s valuable information for them to carry out a scam.
So, ensure you use a shredder when discarding printed documents that contain PII. Similarly, use a digital shredder tool to permanently delete unwanted digital files and prevent hackers from retrieving them later.
If the safety of your personally identifiable information is a growing concern to you, then it’s time to reassess your data security practices. After all, the cost of a data breach is too high to leave data safety to chance. And a little bit of preventative care could go a long way to protect you from the dreadful repercussions of a PII breach.