How to Protect, Prepare, & Organize Your Personal Digital Health in 2021

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Bruce Mendelsohn (The Hired Pen)

Just like changing our smoke detector batteries when we shift from Daylight Savings Time to Standard Time, the beginning of each year reminds us to conduct a “Personal Digital Health Checkup”. 

Beyond the practical benefit of protecting your digital health and privacy, the hour or so you invest to review, clean, organize, and update the settings on your browsers, social media, email, and Virtual Home Assistants will enhance your digital privacy and security throughout 2021. 

In 2020, the average internet user spent 6 hours and 43 minutes online every day (Statista). You can visit a lot of sites in almost seven hours. Multiply that by 365 and you’ll have a rough idea of how vulnerable you are to revealing Personally Identifiably Information (PII). (This doesn’t include sites you visit on your smartphone, mobile device, or other internet-enabled devices).

Before you start assessing your personal digital health, you need to discover where you’re vulnerable to cyberattacks, malware, phishing scams, or worse. How open is your digital door?

Of course, you use strong passwords. Sure, you regularly clear your cache, disable cookies, and erase your browser history.

As a savvy Internet user, you know that companies and websites track everything you do online. Every ad, social network, and website collects data about your location, search history, browsing habits, purchasing patterns, and more. That info is stored somewhere in some digital folder, which means it’s vulnerable to bad actors. (See security breach, Pentagon).  

Aggregated over time, the digital data you disseminate in cyberspace could be used to identify you and/or track your behavior via tactics like IP lookups and browser fingerprinting. All that info can enable bad guys to create a profile that matches… you. Like the saying goes, it’s not paranoia if it’s real. 

The checklist and resources below can help safeguard your personal digital health.

Browsers 

As of January 2, 2021, the Internet was home to more than 1.83 billion websites (Tek Eye). Regardless of the browser you use to access your favorite sites (Google Chrome is the most popular, with 61.77% web browser dominance), don’t leave behind digital breadcrumbs for bad actors to follow.

  1. Use the free analyzer at Privacy.net. It offers several tests to evaluate your browser privacy, listing info that any website, digital ad, and/or widget can collect from your web browser.
  2. Find out if your data has been breached. 93% of data breaches happen within minutes, and 83% aren’t discovered for weeks (Statista). Search for your email address on Have I Been Pwned? to cross-reference your email address with hundreds of data breaches. 
  3. Opt out of data sharing. User-friendly programs like Simple Opt Out let you reduce your profile by opting out of data sharing routinely done by prominent companies like Netflix, PayPal, and Facebook.
  4. Clear your cache. Do this after you’ve completed the three steps above. Even though you may likely have to re-enter your passwords when you return to sites you visit often, you’re going to update your passwords anyway. Regardless, it’s prudent to clear your cache and browsing history routinely.

Social Media

The best way to protect your privacy on social media is to not be on social media. For most of us, though, opting out of social media is unrealistic. The steps below can increase your privacy on sites like Facebook (nearing 3 billion users worldwide), Twitter (336 million monthly active users), LinkedIn (500 million users), Instagram (1 billion users), YouTube, SnapChat, TikTok, etc.

Email

One in every 131 emails contain dangerous malware such as ransomware and phishing attacks (Statista), so you should always be vigilant about privacy when using email. For shopping, contest entries, or other commercial online activities, create and use a burner email account you don’t care about. (This can also decrease spam you get at your “main” email account.)

Weak or stolen passwords is the most common tactic among cybercriminals. Because 81% of cyberattacks are based on weak or stolen passwords (Statista), the best way to protect your privacy and security is to use a password manager to generate and remember different, complex passwords for each account. 

LastPass and 1Password each generate passwords, monitor accounts for security breaches, suggest changing weak passwords, and sync passwords between your computer and phone. 

Use two-step authentication whenever it’s offered for your online accounts. Two-step authentication requires you to enter your password and a number only you can access. For extra security, use an app like Google Authenticator to receive the temporary log-in access codes you receive. 

Here are three top tips to protect your security when using email:

  1. Use strong passwords and change them often (see above)
  2. Avoid public Wi-Fi
  3. Guard your email address: Because cybercriminals constantly troll these venues for victims, don’t share your email address on social media or in blog posts. 

Now that you’ve secured your data and email addresses, the tips below can help you quickly access the data and emails you so diligently protected:

    • Empty your trash and spam folders on your email accounts
    • Create a “Archive” folder and put inactive folders (2019 and earlier) into it
    • Create a “2020 Master Folder” where you store inactive or completed 2020 project folders
    • Create a “2021 Master Folder” where you create and place sub-folders for continuing projects, anticipated projects, or action items (e.g., “To-Do” sub-folder)
  • Organize your folders on Google Shared Drive, DropBox, etc. Review permissions and add or remove contacts as appropriate.

Virtual Home Assistants: Mute the “Never-Sleeping Ear”

This one’s simple. 

If you’re concerned about your personal privacy and don’t want anyone recording or listening to your conversations, don’t install or use a personal virtual assistant in your house. Using these or other smart devices are calculated risks that significantly increase your vulnerability.

“You had to live – did live, from habit that became instinct – in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard.” (Orwell, 1984)

But since Amazon has sold more than 100 million Alexa-enabled devices, you may be one of the five U.S. adults who own a home voice assistant (Alexa, Echo, Google Assistant are the most widely used). Always “on” (even when they’re not awake), the devices are always listening but not always transmitting.

We’re not (yet) at this stage of Orwellian intrusiveness; you can protect your privacy and still benefit from your home virtual assistant via a few easy steps. 

  1. Turn off the camera and mics: On the Echo Show and Show 5, use the “off” button on top of the unit. The red LED light visually confirms the mic and camera are disabled.
  2. Change your wake word: Open the Alexa app on your mobile device, find your speaker in Devices and choose your new wake word (options: Computer, Amazon, or Echo)
  3. Change your privacy settings:
    1. Open the Alexa app on your mobile device.
    2. Tap the menu button on the top left of the screen.

(Alexa app > Alexa Account > Alexa Privacy > Manage how your data improves Alexa > Disable the button next to Help Develop New Features > Disable the button next to your name under Use Messages to Improve Transcriptions)

  1. Turn off automatic purchasing: Under the Voice Purchasing setting, disable “Purchase by Voice” in the Alexa app. Or create a PIN code to avoid unauthorized purchases. (Alexa app > Settings > Account Settings > Voice Purchasing > Disable Purchase by Voice)

Reviewed offers more details about how to protect your privacy when using an Alexa-enabled Virtual Home Assistant. 

One last piece of advice: Put a reminder in your calendar to check your personal digital health around July 4th. As we use and store more of our PII online, rising cybercrime, ransomware, malware, and data breaches demand that we manage our personal digital health as diligently and zealously as we manager our mental, physical, and spiritual health. 


Three Reasons to Include “Traditional Media” in Your Ad Budget in 2019 & BeyondAbout the Author: Bruce R. Mendelsohn is The Hired Pen, a Digital Marketing and Content Development Consultant who helps diverse clients develop memorable, measurable, monetizable, and culturally sensitive multimedia engagement campaigns. He is a verified professional journalist and a U.S. Army Veteran. The Hired Pen is a Service-Disabled Veteran-Owned Business Enterprise (SDVOBE). Please follow on Twitter @brm90 or connect onLinkedIn.