Books written by Ray Sullivan

Monday, 30 January 2012

What Does Your Data Say About You?

I stumbled across the fact that Friday 27th January was Data Privacy Day in the European Union and Saturday 28th in the United States.  It may be a tad late - it's ironic that the event seems to be the most secretive aspect of personal data.  It's a great idea though, reminding us all about the dangers of data security, because it seems many of don't take it too seriously.

Many of you will have Facebook pages, Twitter accounts and might run the odd blog or website.  Some of you will be careful about who you let see those pages and in particular your words and images, but if someone from your extended Facebook family shares something you've posted then you have no control over where it will end up.

I hear the 'Big Deal' cry as I type; so someone you don't know reads your views on the Government or sees you draped over the railings outside a pub after a spectacularly good night out.  But research commissioned by Microsoft for the Data Privacy Day reveals that it is a deal, for all of us to some extent.  They surveyed adults in the US, Ireland and other developed countries about attitudes and experiences.

First off, 56% of the surveyed adults don't think about the consequences of their online activities.  That may not seem such a big deal until you find out that 14% of the respondents had had a negative experience as a aresult of their online activities.  21% of the 14% (approximately 3% of all surveyed) had lost their job as a result!  Three percent.  For something they wrote or were identified doing via an online entry. 

Assuming that the survey was run correctly (and Microsoft can afford a decent survey if anyone can) then statistically that 3% can be applied to the general populations of the developed world.  OK, you could take the view that if someone is stupid enough to badmouth their employer, or post photos of themselves white water rafting when claiming to be off work with a back injury they deserve to be sacked.  An alternate view is that many people bad mouth their employer, often in public, but if they're smart enough (on not techie savvy enough) to avoid using Social Networks then they will continue to get away with their misdoings.

The survey also highlighted other negative experiences ranging from not getting a job (although it's difficult to see how someone can know that absolutely unless advised that the job was theirs apart from the online information) to losing their health insurance.  Again, you may be low on sympathy for people who appear to cheat systems, but perhaps it's very easy for comments to be taken out of context when passed from FB user to FB user.

But it's not just your boss checking out your social network pages, there are people data mining your information right now.  Got a Facebook profile?  Does it have your date of birth on it?  Great for targetted marketing (I was amazed at how quickly I started to get hearing aid junk mail the day I turned fifty), and superb for credit card thieves - a critical piece of data used by banks as identification.  Why not pop your mother's maiden name on there, too, as that's quite a useful piece of information.  You may find, if your mother has a Facebook page and is a 'Friend' of yours, she may already have listed her maiden name in her profile, perhaps even in her FB handle (Suzy Q prev X).  You may as well pop your employer in there too, you can't make it too simple for scammers to make it look like they're a concerned bank just checking a payment from XYZ Corporation.  Just a few questions to confirm you are the account holder before we start...

And of course, if you have put your employer down, then should you make a comment that may be considered derogatory or at odds with Company Policy, then your defence is going to look a little weak.  If you work for Apple, I'd suggest you be very careful what you say about their products online as sniffy doesn't cover it.

General wisdom would be to ensure that your Facebook security settings are limited as much as possible.  Remember you don't have have your Date of Birth visible, it doesn't even have to be honest - if you're not publicising it, what does it matter if it's incorrect - it's not like the FB team send you a birthday card.  The same goes for your other online activities - keep the data down and try to keep a firewall between sensitive data and your opinions if you can.

Sometimes you need to provide information publicly and make it freely available if you want to achieve some goal.  I keep my Facebook page as private as possible - I rarely post and use it to view information from family and friends. [update - since writing this I have started a new Facebook page to promote my books - it's open to all to join in and holds only relevant author information] My Twitter and Blog accounts are open to all to look at as they are tools to promote my writing, but I suppress information about how I earn a living, who I work for as it's irrelevant to promoting my books and it means that my employer shouldn't be able to claim I've tarred its public image with my views.

So, before you shut your computer down, take a moment to reflect if your social media information is appropriate and necessary - do you need to leave your date of birth available for anyone to view, can you persuade your mother to not advertise her maiden name? Or, alternatively, call up your bank, credit card and store card call centres - they're all in India so you may end up talking to the same person several times, you may end up with a rapport and a new Friend for Facebook - and change your security details to less obvious data if they allow it.  Your friends probably have your birthday ringed on their calanders anyway, so you should still get that card.  And if you  email me your date of birth, where you were born and your Mother's details I'll send you and your mother suitable messages every year. Promise.

Now, before I close down my computer, I really must see if I can help those poor fellows in Burkino Faso struggling to move large amounts of money.  I mean, there's so many of them with the same problem.  Perhaps if I send them basic information about myself, I can help them to help themselves...literally.


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