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Cybersecurity: How to Balance Digital Privacy and Security Needs

Family using different technology products in the same room

In a world where nearly everything we could want is just a few taps away on a smartphone screen, it is easy to see why businesses and consumers alike are excited about a wide range of services and products driven by a connection to voice assistants and smartphone apps. But with that convenience and the vast data is creates, balancing cybersecurity and internet privacy isn't always easy.

Given the speed at which technology and devices adapt, consumers must become their own IT team and stay ahead of important trends and changes. While this requires concerted effort on the part of users, the valuable payoff comes in the form of keeping private information safe.

If you are concerned with your own data security, you are not alone. You can't always avoid large data breaches, but you can take steps to help keep your personal data safe from cyber attackers. Implement these key cybersecurity practices in your own computers, phones and accounts to instantly improve your online security everywhere you go.

1. Encrypt your emails

If you use a secure, cloud-based email system that you log into via a dedicated app or a website that starts with "https" in the address bar, your email is already secure for the most part. However, you can do even more to keep your emails from being read by someone else with email encryption.

When you use email encryption, the text and subject line of your messages are scrambled and encoded in a way that only the intended recipient, who has the decoder key, is able to unscramble and read them. There are many low and no-cost encryption options, all of which help to ensure that your emails are for your eyes only. Services work with major email providers including Gmail, Yahoo and Outlook.

Regardless of which service you choose, understand where it stores its keys and decrypted messages so you are aware of the precise level of security and privacy provided. This adds an extra layer of cybersecurity on top of whatever your email provider does to keep your information safe.

2. Manage your passwords

Uncomplicated and/or reused passwords can provide hackers easy access to your personal information. Every password should include diverse characters, numbers, symbols and capitalization. Passwords should not be anything obvious or easily guessable—your street name or birthday, for example.

Generating secure passwords is easy using built-in generators in the Google Chrome browser or any major password manager. These generators instantly create a fully randomized password that can stand up to even the strongest brute force hacking attempts. The longer the password, the better.

Keeping all of those passwords straight would be impossible without using some kind of storage system. You should never write your passwords on a piece of paper at your desk. That is not good password security. Instead, you can employ a secure password manager that requires just one password to login and unlock all of your other passwords.

Password managers store your complex, unique passwords for each digital account. Some password managers store your passwords in a secure cloud, so you can log in and access those passwords for automatic filling on any device. Others store passwords on your computer or an ultra-secure USB drive.

When you use secure, unique passwords, you are free from the worst fallout of data breaches. Even if cyber attackers do get your username and password for one site, they can't use it anywhere else. When you repeat passwords, one data breach could give a cybercriminal access to your entire digital life.

3. Educate yourself about privacy policies

Part of being more digitally secure is understanding how companies collect, use and store your personal data. Companies collecting personally sensitive data have legal obligations to keep critical infrastructure secure. But it is up to you to verify what each service you sign up for does to keep your personal data safe from cyber attackers.

When involving yourself with a company online, take the extra time to comb through its privacy policies and settings. Keep in mind that privacy policies that do not explain how your data is collected should be considered suspect—all websites collect data in some way and that method should be transparent to you.

If you're uncomfortable with a certain part of a privacy policy, contact the company or opt to find an alternative vendor. Privacy policies can be lengthy, so narrow down your concerns and read with a keen eye.

Look for items including what data is collected, where and how it is shared, and opportunities to opt out of sharing and limit what the company stores on its servers.

4. Learn the difference between anonymity and privacy

Anonymous and private aren't interchangeable. The former refers to the ability to hide your activities, the latter your identity. Depending on your digital needs, you may prioritize one over the other.

One may want to be anonymous, for instance, if he or she is a journalist investigating a sensitive source. On the other hand, privacy may be needed if one is having a personal conversation he or she wants to keep solely between involved parties. In a more concrete example, users may want to keep their identities anonymous when operating a cryptocurrency account, but private when using Facebook. Pending your needs, various private browsing sessions and anonymizing services exist.

To keep your data private when using the internet on a public wireless network, consider adding a VPN (virtual private network) to your laptop or smartphone. A VPN creates a secure, encrypted virtual tunnel between your device and the VPN server. This added security prevents anyone from snooping on your browsing session at the coffee shop or airport and works in tandem with other security practices to improve your digital privacy.

You can also go back to the privacy policies we discussed above to learn about any privacy settings you can change to improve your online privacy. Most major social networks give you control over how you show up in search, what is public and what is accessible to friends only. Also consider how any apps you use may share or compromise your cybersecurity practices.

5. Monitor your social media accounts

An active social media presence may be essential to your personal and professional well-being, but those likes and shares come with their own set of security challenges. Online criminals may be watching.

Always keep in mind what you are posting on social media and who is able to see it. Is your Facebook, Instagram or other social account private or public? If you're a public figure, do you have a public-facing account for professional announcements, in addition to a private account only viewable by those closest to you?

It's worth remembering that sharing information like your phone number, address or email address is never a wise decision. If you're concerned about privacy on social media, continually review your new followers and frequently change your passwords to ensure account access stays in your hands alone.

What you share online can also make you the target of a scam. For example, if you share that you are going on vacation, someone may attempt identity theft while you are away. Even worse, you may be targeted for a robbery while your home is empty.

In the age of hyper-connectivity, balancing security and privacy requires a dedicated effort. But with the right tools and knowledge, you can safeguard your identity, while continuing to enjoy a rich, digital life.

Rest easy with the right safeguards in place

Digital threats are constant, but if you take some basic steps to protect your information and your devices, you can enjoy the convenience and fun of social networks and other digitally connected products and services without constant worry.

Balancing cybersecurity and privacy is not always easy, but it is an important focus for everyone. While most businesses use your data for legitimate marketing purposes, you certainly don't want that information falling into the wrong hands. If you follow basic security practices, you can rest easy knowing your information is as safe as possible in the wild world of the world wide web.

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