So you think you’re a careful Internet user?

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Photo of girl on phoneThese days it’s hard for us to avoid doing certain tasks online. Even if you prefer to receive you bills and statements manually, buy items in person on the High Street and don’t use Social Media, many of us will use a computer to browse the Internet and use Email.

So how much of the data we enter on our computers, or even fill out in coupons, can find its way into the Public domain? The answer is, more than you probably think!

Let’s think about an average day for our Virtual user, let’s call her Stacey. Stacey gets up in the morning and the first thing she does is check her Facebook page and respond to a friend’s photo taken last night. Most Social network sites will register your GPS co-ordinates when you post or even take a photo on your mobile phone, so that gives a pretty accurate idea of where Stacey’s friend was last night and where Stacey is this morning. As she always checks her Facebook page when she wakes up, that builds up a regular location and so without knowing Stacey’s address, we could assume that she lives at that location as she adds a post from there first thing most mornings.

Stacey makes her way to work. On the bus, she checks her personal emails. There’s an email in from a shop she goes to regularly. She has a loyalty card with them (which means they will know what products she purchases and when) and they are offering a chance to win a product she really likes. She enters the competition on line, giving her address and date of birth. She doesn’t check the box to deny access to this information from 3rd parties, so she’s probably now going to receive lots of other related offers either through the post or via email.

She gets to work and logs on to her computer and starts work. It’s a busy morning and the time flies by! At lunchtime she needs to check details of an order she placed recently with a mail order company. She tries to log in emailbut can’t remember her password, so gets a reminder sent to her personal, free email account. To do that, she has to enter her secret questions – date of birth and Mothers Maiden name. That’s right, it was her usual password. Uh, oh! One password for everything? Plus using 2 pieces of information that are commonly used to prove identity for Banking?

OK, so we would like to think that all companies treat their customers data as top secret , and the majority do, but we hear of cases where information does get in to the wrong hands occasionally. Try not to use the same password all the time, or have something that is too personal (date of birth, name of your house, favourite team) and don’t be afraid to lie if asked for the information and it’s not for a genuine identification purpose like a Bank, Inland Revenue or DVLA where it will be used to cross reference with other databases.

Stacey notices that in her email web portal she is seeing adverts relating to blue prom dresses. That’s strange, she was only looking at those last night on the web! It’s not a coincidence. Most free services such as Gmail and Yahoo are free because the companies are getting paid by the advertisers, and not just for space. Although personal identification details don’t get sold, they will pass on details of searches you carry out, phrases or words mentioned in your emails and websites you visit. This allows them to tailor the adverts you see to things supposedly relevant to you.

Lunch hour over, it’s back to work. Stacey takes the opportunity to update her Linked In page with some updated employment and education details and updates her contact information with her new mobile number. Although Linked In is a business networking site, it’s still posting personal information that’s available for all to see. Plus, there’s a lovely photo on there that she’s really proud of. Looks very professional (and now everyone can put a face to the name, email address and phone number!)

drinksAfter work, Stacey is catching up with some friends for a drink. They keep in touch via Social media about where they will meet and what time.

During the evening they all post comments and photos on Social media. Again, it’s advertising where they are and what they are doing. Looks like it’s going to be a long night… wonder if there’s anyone else at home??

So, should we pull down the shutters, bolt the doors and never venture into the virtual world again? Is it all full of crooks and villains just waiting to grab the first bit of information we put in the public domain? In reality, no, but it’s wise to be careful and think about what you are posting and where.

For example, taking a nice photo of your house and secluded back garden and posting on Facebook, at the same time as mentioning your up and coming 2 week family holiday, is not to be recommended!

As mentioned before, try to avoid using personal details where they are not required for proper identification purposes and read the small print carefully when filling out forms, both online and on paper (as they will just get entered onto a computer somewhere too eventually!)

Finally, check the privacy settings on your social media accounts to make sure that details are only shown to those you want to see them rather than being open to all.


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