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TERWILLIGER: For 2023 Resolve to Get Spied on Less

I considered repeating the usual New Year’s resolutions–eating better, exercising, listening more than talking, and reading that stack of unopened books. All worthy goals. But this year I am prioritizing personal data safety by reducing my exposure to electronic surveillance.

Most of us are concerned with how much electronic spying goes on in our lives. In most cases, however, the blame falls squarely on our shoulders. We want to be able to search online with quick, accurate results. We prefer ads (if we must see them) for things relevant to us.

Practically everyone reading this has decided (as I have) to keep an electronic tracking device in our back pockets, watching where we are at every moment, recording our personal data as we send and receive information.

Every selfie we take, every child’s birthday we record, contains metadata that details exactly where we were, down to the finest GPS locations, with timestamps. Our phones often know the name of the people or objects in our photos. (Look at your phone’s photo gallery and type in the search box ‘dogs’ or ‘kids’ as a test).

The digital universe makes us easier to track. But we can reduce the risk of sharing too much personal data with some simple ‘data hygiene.’ One of the easiest things to do is to use safer web browsers and search engines. Opera and Brave provide good browser personal security.

I find Firefox has very secure options. It collects minimal personal data, has built-in malware protection, and can block sites from tracking you. It has an icon that can tell you if a site is attempting to record your data. Protecting your email address is becoming easier. Sites often sell our contact information to companies that then spam us. Apple, Firefox, and others allow you to fill out forms using an alias email address, so your real address cannot be shared with others. The Firefox version is free.

Web searches generate the most personal tracking problems. Instead of Google, you can try DuckDuckGo. Based in Pennsylvania, DDG eliminates the tracking software built into Google. I have found the quality of the search results to be just as good (and occasionally better) than Google. Change your search engine choice in your browser to see.

If you want to stay with Google, you can have your personal information removed from Google searches. Google is not obligated to remove your personal information, but you can make the request. You can manage how Google treats your data if you have a Google account. On the Google home page click on your name at the top, then select ‘Data and Privacy’. You will see a list of choices to help stop web tracking. (You may be surprised by the list of trackers you have!)

Want to learn more about deleting online tracking? The Delete Me blog page is a good place to learn how to hide your digital footprints. For protection from data hacking, the simplest thing to do is to enable ‘Automatic Updates’ on your devices. This ensures you will have the latest security software automatically. All devices have this option in their settings. Switching it on is free and reduces the possibility of data hacking.

The single most important thing you can do for data hygiene is to go to your most used websites and services and change your passwords. Everyone knows we should change passwords more often, but we rarely do it. Someday devices may use face or retina scans but until then, we have passwords. When passwords are stolen they can be offered for sale on ‘dark web’ sites. We all know people who have had their social media personalities hacked. Why wait? Update your passwords now.

Safari and Firefox have built-in password generators. If you use a password vault system these services will generate and remember passwords for you. If you make your own, avoid using the same password twice. Avoid using your street address, birthdate, or family names. For simple, safe passwords hyphenate small groups of words and numbers (Dress-1941-jumP-milk). The passwords can be stored in a vault like Apple Keychain or a password vault provider.

You cannot read that shelf of books in less than a few months, and changing your diet and exercising are worthy but difficult goals. But you can join me in resolving to make our personal data safer and more secure this week. Most of the cost is only a little time. If doing this prevents even one personal hack or data leak it will be one of the best resolutions, you can ever make.

Happy New Year!

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WAHRHAFTIG: Yet Another Threat to Personal Data

If you have voted in Pennsylvania, anyone can view your personal information including your name, gender, date of birth, and date you registered to vote. It tells if you are an active or inactive voter, and when you last changed voter status or party affiliation. Also, your residential and mailing addresses, and your polling place are included. It details the last date you voted, your school, state legislature, and congressional district. It contains your voter history, and the date that record was last changed. Anyone can read this. It just costs $20 on the Pennsylvania Department of State web site.

Recently, the Pennsylvania Senate’s Intergovernmental Operations Committee’s presented arguments for their subpoena to the Commonwealth Court for election processes as well as additional personal information about you. The committee seeks details including guidance issued by the Department of State to county election officials, including training materials and directives. That sounds reasonable. But in addition, it demands the release to the Committee of voter data including some things that are already publicly available and some that are not. They want your driver’s license and the last 4 digits of your social security number. This is supposedly in the cause of election integrity. But not to worry. The politicians assure us that this additional personal data will be kept “secret” by them.

How many times will we need to receive apologies from companies and institutions because they suffered a data break-in containing our personal information? In 2021 alone, millions of “secure” data files were stolen and sold on the ‘dark web’. It is becoming clear that the only sure way of protecting personal data is to not provide it.

Given the challenges of data security faced by even the most sophisticated data protection firms, why would we create the tempting target for identity thieves of a single store of personal data? This database would contain your name, address, date of birth, driver’s license number and partial social security numbers – all in one convenient-to-download file. Driver’s license numbers and partial social security numbers, we would argue, are unnecessary for the Committee’s stated purpose of auditing the election.  There is already significant individual voter data available publicly.

This committee demand is an unreasonable waste of resources and a dangerous exposure of voter’s personal information. Hopefully, the court will see the problems inherent in this plan and act to protect the public from yet another exposure of personal information.

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