By Anastasios Arampatzis

Many believe cybersecurity and privacy are about emerging technologies, processes, hackers, and laws. Partially this is true. Technology is pervasive and has changed drastically how we live, work and communicate. High-profile data breaches make the news headlines more frequently than not, and businesses are fined enormous penalties for breaking security and privacy laws.

However, they must remember the most important pillar of data protection and privacy; the human element. Hymans create and use technology, and it is humans who even develop the regulations that govern a respectful and ethical use of technology. What is more, humans mostly feel the impact of data breaches. The human element is also responsible for the majority of data breaches. The Verizon Data Breach Investigations Report highlights that humans are responsible for 82% of successful data breaches.

If this percentage seems high, imagine that many security professionals argue that it is instead closer to 100%. Flawed applications, for example, are the artifact of humans. People manufacture insecure Internet of Things (IoT) devices. And it is humans that choose weak passwords or reuse passwords across multiple applications and platforms.

This is not to imply that we should accuse people of being “the weakest link” in cybersecurity and privacy. On the contrary, these thoughts underline the importance of individuals in preserving a solid security and privacy posture. This demonstrates how essential it is to create a security and privacy culture. Raising awareness about threats and best practices becomes the foundation of a safer digital future.

Data Threats Awareness

Our data is collected daily — your computer, smartphone, and almost every internet-connected device gather data. When you download a new app, create a new account, or join a new social media platform, you will often be asked to provide access to your personal information before you can even use it! This data might include your geographic location, contacts, and photos.

For these businesses, this personal information about you is of tremendous value. Companies use this data to understand their prospects better and launch targeted marketing campaigns. When used properly, the data helps companies better understand the needs of their customers. It serves as the basis for personalization, improving customer service, and creating customer value. They help to understand what works and what doesn’t. They also form the basis for automated and repeatable marketing processes that help companies evolve their operations.

In an article from May 2017, The Economist defined the data industry as the new oil industry. According to LSE Business Review, advertisements accounted for 92% of Facebook’s revenue and above 90% of Google’s revenue. This revenue is equal to approximately 60 billion $.

This is the point where things derail. Businesses store personal data indefinably. They use data to make inferences about your socioeconomic status, demographic information, and preferences. The Cambridge Analytica scandal was a great manifestation of how companies can manipulate our beliefs based on the psychographic profiles created by harvesting vast amounts of “innocent” personal data. Companies do not always use your data to your interest or according to your consent. Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon, and Microsoft generate value by exploiting them, selling them (for example, via a data broker), or exchanging them for other data.

Besides the threats originating from the misuse of our data by legitimate businesses, there is always the danger coming from malicious actors who actively seek to spot gaps in data protection measures. The same Verizon report indicates that personal data are the target in 76% of data breach incidents. The truth is that data is valuable to criminals as well.

According to Keeper Security, criminals sell your stolen data in the dark web market, doing a profitable business. A Spotify account costs $2.75, a Netflix account up to $3.00, a driver’s license $20.00, a credit card up to $22.00, and a complete medical record $1.000! Now multiply these prices per unit by the million records compromised yearly, and you have a sense of the booming cybercrime economy.

Privacy Best Practices Awareness

If this reality is sending chills down your spine, don’t fret! You can take steps to control how your data is shared. You can’t lock down all your data — even if you stop using the internet, credit card companies and banks record your purchases. But you can take simple steps to manage it and take more control of whom you share it with.

First, it is best to understand the tradeoff between privacy and convenience. Consider what you get in return for handing over your data, even if the service is free. You can make informed decisions about sharing your data with businesses or services. Here are a few considerations:

-Is the service, app, or game worth your personal data?

-Can you control your privacy and still use the service?

-Is the data requested relevant to the app or service?

-If you last used an app several months ago, is it worth keeping it, knowing that it might be collecting and sharing your data?

You can adjust the privacy settings to your comfort level based on these considerations. Check the privacy and security settings for every app, account, or device. These should be easy to find in the Settings section and usually require a few minutes to change. Set them to your comfort level for personal information sharing; generally, it’s wise to lean on sharing less data, not more. You don’t have to adjust the privacy settings for every account at once; start with some apps, which will become a habit over time.

Another helpful habit is to clear your cookies. We’ve all clicked “accept cookies” and have yet to learn what it means. Regularly clearing cookies from your browser will remove certain information placed on your device, often for advertising purposes. However, cookies can pose a security risk, as hackers can easily hijack these files.

Finally, you can try privacy-protecting browsers. Looking after your online privacy can feel complicated, but specific internet browsers make the task easier. Many browsers depreciate third-party cookies and have strong privacy settings by default. Changing browsers is simple but can be very effective for protecting your privacy.

Data Protection Best Practices Awareness

Data privacy and data protection are closely related. Besides managing your data privacy settings, follow some simple cybersecurity tips to keep it safe. The following four steps are fundamental for creating a solid data protection posture.

-Create long (at least 12 characters) unique passwords for each account and device. Use a password manager to store all your passwords. Maintaining dozens of passwords securely is easier than ever, and you only need to remember one password.

-Turn on multifactor authentication (MFA) wherever permitted, even on apps that are about football or music. MFA can help prevent a data breach even if your password is compromised.

-Do not deactivate the automatic updates that come as a default with many software and apps. If you choose to do it manually, make sure you install these updates as soon as they are available.

-Do not click on links or attachments included in phishing messages. You can learn how to spot these emails or SMS by looking closely at the content and the sender’s address. If they promote urgency and fear or seem too good to be true, they are probably trying to trick you. Better safe than sorry.

This article was prepared as part of the project “Increasing Civic Engagement in the Digital Agenda — ICEDA” with the support of the European Union and South East Europe (SEE) Digital Rights Network. The content of this article in no way reflects the views of the European Union or the SEE Digital Rights Network.