There's an old fable about a frog and a scorpion. If you've heard it before, I'm sure you're already drawing the connections. It goes something like this:
A frog and a scorpion both need to cross a river. The scorpion offers to let the frog ride on his back as he swims to the other side. The frog is hesitant and asks the scorpion if it plans on stinging him. After several reassurances from the scorpion, the frog hops on the scorpion's back and they make their way across the river. But just before they reach the other side, the scorpion stings the frog. When the frog asks why it just condemned them both to death by stinging him, the scorpion replies that it's in its nature to do so.
I can't help but draw parallels between this story and the Facebook and Cambridge Analytica data scandal that's been rocking headlines over the past few weeks.
The shock, anger, and uproar over this egregious data misuse is all warranted, but a scorpion is going to do what a scorpion does. Facebook's sole purpose since its inception is to entice you to hand over as much of your personal information as possible. Most people think of Facebook as a "free" service but it is not free, you pay for it by providing your information, which is of extreme value. In turn Facebook, sells this information and makes a huge profit. Blindly trusting a company with your personal information is like trusting a scorpion to carry you safely across the river.
Is your personal information safe online?
The short answer: no. If you post something--anything--online, to the cloud, or to a social- media account, it's vulnerable to hacking, harvesting, getting leaked, or just simply being sold (in the case of companies that literally profit from the sale of your personal information). In fact, one of the latest unfortunate data harvesting trends is that bots are now sidestepping newly tightened Facebook and Instagram privacy policies to collect personal data anyway.
Unfortunately, there's no immediate solution here. The world is becoming more digital and our everyday lives--from social interactions to professional connections--are online now more than ever, and legislation and information security implementation are not keeping pace. In the near term, the key to safely participating in the digital world is to proceed with an abundance of caution and be on high alert.
Here are a few ways to protect your privacy at a reasonable level:
Read the privacy policies.
Whenever you do business with a company online, get to know their privacy policies. This means reading the fine print before clicking the "I Accept" button. You might be shocked at what you find in there. And if you do find anything in the terms that you do not agree with, you'll need to weigh the need for the service versus the potential risk to your privacy.
Avoid sharing information you wouldn't want leaked.
At this point, we all know that risqué photos posted anywhere online can and do come back to haunt people--particularly during job interviews. But beyond being smart about what you post, think twice about what you like, comment, or share on any social-media platform, blog post, or forum. The details you give out might be traced back to you or sold off to the highest bidder.
Give out the minimum amount of information.
Very often, even when buying basics at a big box store, you are asked for information. Someone at the checkout counter may ask you for your email address, for example. You can and should question any company that is asking for your personal information. Give them the least amount necessary and, if possible, give them nothing. It rarely benefits you for corporations to have more information about you and your family.
Lobby for change.
When these scandals or hacks happen, the initial uproar fades over time. But, in terms of data privacy, if we want real change to happen, legislation needs to be made and companies need to be held accountable. This requires all of us to take a proactive approach by contacting our politicians, signing petitions, and pushing for change long after the dust settles on each of these scandals.
The information we share online is vulnerable. Our technology does not guarantee that the data or information we share won't get hacked, stolen, or leaked. While this is disconcerting, there are things you can do to protect yourself. By becoming an informed user, thinking through the information you want to share, and pushing for a change to data privacy legislation, you can avoid getting stung by the scorpions of the world.