A Day in the Life of Your Personal Data

personal-dataOver the course of an average day, the typical Internet user discloses an incredible amount of information as she goes about her personal business.

Whether it’s completely innocent information, such as liking a new Internet radio station, or more sensitive data, like a credit card number, all of this data is automatically stored and can be tracked back to a unique user relatively simply.

Have you ever thought about how much information you put out there when you use your phone, computer, or other smart devices? Read on for six ways you share your personal information without knowing it.

Email

Whether it’s for work, school, or personal use, most people send and receive emails constantly. The username and password that you use to log in to your email account may give you the illusion of privacy, but in reality, your username links directly to traceable personal information. Not only is your email address linked to your real name, it’s also connected to your Internet Protocol (IP) address, which is a unique identifier that your computer or phone uses to connect to the Internet.

Neither the juicy details that you might share over a personal message nor the sensitive information you might reveal in a work message are truly secure when sent by email. Servers store copies of all of this data indefinitely, and a variety of interested parties can obtain access to the information with little effort. In 2013, the news broke that the National Security Administration routinely collected data from major email services, including Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft, and those information leaks have shown no sign of slowing.

Credit and Debit Cards

If you use debit or credit cards either online or in a store, various systems document and track your purchasing history. This can seem like a great idea when you see the positive benefits, such as returning that pair of shoes that didn’t fit and receiving a refund to your credit card almost immediately after swiping it for the return.

When things go awry with credit card information storage, though, allowing your name and credit card number to be tracked can seem like more trouble than it’s worth. Today, countless major retail chains have unwittingly been attacked by hackers, resulting in the theft of vast amounts of personal data. As any victim of identity theft knows, stolen credit card information can quickly lead to a damaged credit report and other serious consequences.

Global Positioning System

Chances are that you use Global Positioning System (GPS) to track your location 24 hours a day without giving it a second thought. If you carry a cell phone, your phone and, by extension, your service provider have records of your every location. Your phone tracks this information by checking in with nearby cell phone towers as you move about and your location changes. If you have a smartphone and enable location services, your device tracks your whereabouts much more specifically.

Over time, your device creates a historical map of everywhere you’ve been. This might be well and good if your service provider keeps the information to itself and allows you to use this service to, say, geotag your photographs. In many cases, though, a simple subpoena can force your provider to disclose all of your historical location data and use it against you, if necessary.

Online Dating Sites

Online dating sites request information for a fun purpose in theory, but your profile and personal information can easily be taken and used for other purposes. When profile questions ask for details like religious beliefs or past drug use, remember that it’s not just potential dates who get to see your information. Generally, online dating sites also submit your answers and your IP address to a third party data tracking company, which can directly link this information to you. Don’t get too comfortable on sites like these, and don’t forget that when you’re online, you’re not as anonymous as you may think.

Photo Sharing

If you post photos of yourself, your friends, or your family online, you may be sharing them with more people than you think. Posting photos to Facebook or Flickr may streamline the process of sharing with family and friends or creating a travel journal, but it also makes image and information theft much easier. If your smartphone uses GPS technology to tag images with locations and times, or if you tag people’s faces on social media sites, you’re likely giving away much more information than you think.

If your photo sharing privacy settings aren’t strict enough or if you’re sharing personal images with thousands of people you don’t know well, it’s not difficult for services and individuals to steal your images for nefarious purposes. Consider turning off the location services on your smartphone to prevent personal information from getting out. Instead of sharing photos with all 2,000 of your Facebook friends, only share them with select groups of people you know personally.

Public Transit Cards and Toll Transponders

Do you ride the subway, bus, or commuter train to work each morning? If so, you likely swipe a permanent, reloadable smart card to access public transit. Though these cards may be designed to allow quick, easy access to transit and simple reloading of funds, they also have tracking capabilities. Each time you swipe your card to get into or out of a station, your smart card documents your location and the time of use.

If you drive to work or for fun and use a transponder, like E-ZPass, to pay tolls electronically, this system also records your location and use. Like smart trip card systems, the E-ZPass system can also track your whereabouts at specific times. This information can be obtained for legal use and can be used to pinpoint your location at a certain time or track your patterns of use if so desired.

Essentially, every time you use a computer, phone, or smart device, your actions are documented and tracked. Even if you have nothing to hide, give a second thought to what you’re sharing online. Make smart decisions about the information you’re putting out there and take the necessary actions to protect your personal information.

2 Responses to A Day in the Life of Your Personal Data

  1. David January 22, 2015 at 2:49 pm #

    Do you guys know any good anonymous email clients that won’t share information?

    • Levent Sapci
      Levent Sapci January 23, 2015 at 3:25 pm #

      Hi David,

      This is a tricky question. To recommend you the most appropriate service, we would need to better understand your needs. Meaning: do you mean mail client or mail server? Are you going to use your current email address? new one? for what type of purposes? Sending emails to people you know? or don’t know? etc…

      Though if you wants just to send anonymous email which would not be connected to you, try the following service: http://anonymouse.org/anonemail.html

      Here are some other suggestions:
      https://mailinator.com/
      https://www.hushmail.com/

      Please keep in mind that E-mail in itself was designed to leak data, there were commercial services like lavabit that tried to change that, but “you know who” took care of them (see https://www.mail-archive.com/cryptography%40metzdowd.com/msg11978.html). Any email client will have to leak data, and if it is not configured properly, it will leak even more data.

      The only way to insure a mail hosting company does not share your information is to run your own mail server. There is no free email, if you are using some mail service for no money, you are paying for it by selling use of your data and exposure to ads at their mail agent/website. As long as you have a persistent identity, you can be correlated by the big providers that receive your emails.

      Levent from the Hotspot Shield Team

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