Protecting your personal data online is a necessary habit you need to adopt – it will stop your inbox filling with unwanted spam and it should prevent you falling victim to identity fraud. A few simple steps now could save you a lot of hassle in the future.
When it comes to casual surfing on the net, the obvious danger is that some unscrupulous person will put together enough information to steal your identity. That would be a nightmare – and in our article on identity theft, we give you some advice on how to prevent that happening.
However, there are people out there who are only too happy to scoop up your personal data for reasons that are nowhere near as alarming, but which can still prove highly irritating. These are the various websites (often run by bona fide commercial operations) which are more than happy to hoover up your data, and then spend the next two years bombarding you with special offers and all manner of spam.
It clogs up your inbox, takes time to deal with, and is a constant low-level nuisance.
Don’t give out too much information
You can’t stop all of this, but you can take steps to minimise the scale of the problem.
First and foremost, be very careful about the information you give out to anyone on the internet. That includes trusted suppliers, because once your information is in their systems, it can be lost, loaned, stolen, or misused.
For social forums, consider signing up using a personal account you don’t use that much – so at least the serious part of your life is separated from the more frivolous.
You may wish to choose a username that does not readily identify exactly who you are. For example, by using a nickname or a combination of letters and numbers.
Read the small print
Next, if you must hand over personal information, read the small print.
If the site is run by a UK-based company, then you are protected by data protection law, which says that they must explain, up front, what they are going to do with your data. And they must obtain your permission on an “opt-in” basis - that is, you must give positive consent rather than them assuming they can do what they like unless you say no.
Sadly, the level of protection varies from country to country. You will have some protection in respect of EU-based websites, but next to none for US-based ones.
Check carefully for options that allow sites to hand your data over to third parties. If you are especially interested in a topic, you may decide this is acceptable. But think carefully before you agree to this because once you’ve said yes, it is very hard to say no again.
Track your data
Consider adding some spurious detail to your data (maybe using a different fake middle initial for each sign-up) so in the future you’ll know which site is the source of communications.
Last, but by no means least, do not be afraid to complain. In the first instance, this should be to the website in question. And if that fails, register your complaint with the Office of the Information Commissioner. Penalties for breaching data protection rules are gradually increasing – and breaching your privacy is not a matter that respectable companies take lightly.