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Your Data Can and Will Be Used Against You | Op-Ed

The lack of cyber-literacy in our societies has created very dangerous conditions. Conditions for people’s information, privacy, and lives to be exploited and abused by malicious actors. You may think “that could never happen to me,” but it is happening to everyone at a growing frequency – and in ways that put everyone at risk.

Over half of Canadians do not have an effective grasp of the impact technology actually has on their lives. While many Canadians are concerned about the impact technology has on their privacy, many do not have the necessary knowledge to change that.

In Short: Even among the most prolific users of technology, youth and young adults, cyber-literacy is lagging. Lack of cyber-literacy has a dangerous impact on safety, security, and privacy.

  • Governments and private companies are scraping everything.
  • Compromised data has been used to influence the 2016 US election and the Brexit vote, harass women and even mistakenly arrest people,
  • Over 28 million Canadians have been affected by data breaches in the past two years, while COVID-19 has cyber-crime at an all-time high.

A few simple things – like using encrypted email, a VPN, and more – can allow you to take back control of your privacy online.

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There is no such thing as “anonymized” data.

Tech companies big and small gather immense amounts of data on pretty much everyone.

This data is being used against people.

  • Unscrupulous employees have used it to stalk women, while companies themselves have even gone so far as to hack their own users (albeit for legitimate reasons).

Private companies are also scraping everything from pictures of your face to your political preferences.

But why should you care? Because cyber-crime and data breaches are a growing problem.

We Are All Exposed: Private corporations are not the only ones who have forsaken and undermined online privacy and security: governments, both authoritarian and democratic, do it as well.

But There Is Hope: Despite all these problems, there are a growing number of options available for the average person that can allow you to retake control of your online privacy and life.

  • Understand the risks you and your data face online, and try to minimize those risks. Also, close online accounts you don’t use anymore.
  • Your privacy is in your hands. Use a VPN and your browser’s privacy mode, and update your privacy settings on your online accounts. Various organizations including PCMag, the non-profit Electronic Frontier Foundation, and Canada’s Privacy Commissioner offer good guides on how to do this and more.
  • Be on the lookout for data breaches by subscribing to and other websites that will alert you to data breaches.

“Encryption protects our hospitals, airports, and the water treatment facilities our children drink from.”

Evan Greer, Deputy Director of Fight for the Future

These Tools Can Help: Many people believe taking back control of their online privacy is impossible because there are “no options,” or that it is simply “too difficult.” Yet there are many easy to use options for anyone to take back control.

  • Tired of trying to remember dozens of passwords? Password Managers such as Dashlane, LastPass, 1Password, Bitwarden, and KeePass can help by securely storing your passwords in a ‘vault’ secured by a master password. They also frequently include features such as cloud syncing, password generators, and even 2-Factor Authentication.
  • 2-Factor/Multi-Factor Authentication (2FA/MFA) is a separate device or a randomly generated code from an app, such as Authy, Duo Mobile, or Google Authenticator, that becomes a second “factor” or piece of authentication when you log-in. Some password managers also offer this feature. Alternatively, hardware keys like YubiKey and the Google Titan Key can also supplement, or even replace, both 2FA/MFA and your regular passwords.
  • Encrypted messaging apps such as Signal and Wire are easy to use, offer many of the features of apps like Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, and even Snapchat, and are fundamentally more secure and private.
  • Encrypted email providers such as Swiss-based ProtonMail and Canada-based Hushmail offer many of the same features as Gmail but without the snooping. Some also provide guides for migrating from other email providers.
  • Browser plugins including Privacy Badger and NoScript give you better control of your browsing habits by blocking trackers, cookies, and scripts.
  • Looking for a search engine that’s not Google? Try DuckDuckGo, a privacy-centered search engine. DuckDuckGo also features ‘bangs’ that allow you to easily search hundreds of other search engines and websites including Google (albeit without the same privacy protection).
  • Finally, embrace more secure and private browsers such as Brave or Firefox, both of which include built-in tracking blockers, password managers, and other secure and private browsing features.

The Bottom Line: While we will never return to the pre-internet era of privacy, boosting cyber-literacy will allow us to avoid a truly dystopian 1984-era of surveillance, exploitation, and crime. And each and every one of us can take simple, easy steps to minimize our risks.

  • Know and minimize the risks your data faces online by changing your privacy settings on your accounts and devices.
  • Adopt tools like password managers and 2FA/MFA to better secure your accounts.
  • Use secure and privacy-centered alternatives to popular messaging apps, email providers, search engines, and browsers.