How to Protect Personal Data Online

A Black businesswoman smiling down at her cell phone.

We use the internet for everything: work, social connection, entertainment, banking, and so much more. The internet is great, but it also comes with risks, especially to your personal information. This article explains how to protect personal data online. We’ll specifically address social media, online transactions, email safety and passwords. This can help you prevent identity theft, data or privacy breaches, reputational damage and financial loss. 

General Tips to Protect Personal Data Online 

Here are general tips to protect your personal data online:  

  • Install anti-virus, anti-spyware, anti-malware and firewall software to your device and keep it updated 
  • Keep your electronic device and its software up to date 
  • Only download verified, well-reviewed apps from a trusted source like Google Play or Apple App Store 
  • Secure your Wi-Fi network by changing the default name and creating a complex password 
  • Consider using a virtual private network (VPN) which encrypts your data and protects your privacy 
  • Remember that public or open Wi-Fi networks have no security 
  • Don’t allow your browser to save your passwords or auto-fill fields 
  • Don’t use social media profiles to log into third party websites 
  • Use multifactor verification, particularly for sensitive accounts like your bank 
  • Use good passwords (more on this below) 
  • Read privacy policy and terms of use for websites and apps 
  • Configure your privacy settings on websites and apps 
  • Log out of websites when you’re done 
  • Be very cautious when downloading files 
  • Opt out of ad tracking 
  • Clear your cache and browsing history regularly  
  • If you’re asked to share personal information, ask why it is needed and how it will be protected 
  • Don’t give out any personal information unless you initiated the contact or can verify the website or person 
  • Understand your digital footprint and reputation 

How to Protect Personal Data on Social Media 

Social media carries risks to your personal data because by its nature, social media communicates a lot of personal information that can be sold or mined. It also has a high incident of social engineering (obtaining personal data through deception), phishing (messages to trick you into giving out personal information), and malware (malicious software installed by getting you to click on a link).  

Here are a few ways you can avoid becoming a victim of these scams and protect your personal information on social networking sites: 

  • Read the site’s privacy policy and terms of use 
  • Regularly review your privacy settings 
  • Don’t use your social media profile to log into third party sites 
  • Be suspicious of anyone asking for personal information or telling you a sob story to get money – contact that person or company outside of social media to verify as hacking happens 
  • Don’t give out information unless you initiated contact and can verify the person or company’s identity  
  • Set clear boundaries with others when it comes to posting your photo or information 
  • Get consent before sharing photos or information of others 
  • Don’t share personal information online – once on the internet, it’s always there 
  • Use a strong password or passphrase that’s unique to that social media account 
  • Turn off geo-tagging 
  • Be cautious of links 

How to Protect Personal Data in Online Transactions 

Online transactions carry a high risk as you’re entering your credit card or banking information. Be very cautious when making online transactions. 

  • Never carry out an online transaction on an open or public Wi-Fi network 
  • Always check the URL – it should have https:// at the start to indicate it’s secure 
  • Ask who is collecting your information, is it necessary for the transaction, what will be done with the information and will it be protected (you can check the privacy policy and terms of use) 
  • You should have an option to opt in or opt out of further communications and marketing (this must be present by law in Canada if they plan to send you any emails not directly related to your purchase) 
  • Set up email alerts or notifications to notify you when your credit card or bank account are used 

How to Protect Personal Data with Email 

Phishing is one of the most common scams to steal your personal information over email. This is when someone emails you to try to steal your personal data. It can often look like a legitimate email from a company or a friend. Here are our tips to protect your personal information when using email: 

  • Do not use a work email for personal things 
  • Choose a safe, reputable email provider 
  • Consider using a disposable email for marketing emails, newsletters, or in any situation you don’t want to use your legitimate email 
  • Check the email send address before replying or opening any links or attachments 
  • Check the domain of any links (it should have https:// 
  • Be wary of unsolicited emails, unknown senders, links and files – friends can be hacked! 
  • If you’re ever asked to share personal information, ask why they need it, how it will be used, and how it will be protected 
  • Verify with a company or individual by speaking to them in person or over the phone to ensure the email is legitimate  
  • Don’t share personal information unless you initiated contact and can verify the company or person 

Protecting Personal Data Online with Passwords 

Passwords are the cornerstone of protecting personal information online. Here are some tips to help you avoid having compromised passwords: 

  • Use unique passwords for every login 
  • Use passphrases or passwords that are at least 8 characters long, have at least one number and symbol, and use a mix of capitals and lowercase letters 
  • Don’t allow your browser to save your passwords 
  • Don’t share your passwords or write them down in a document on your device or on a piece of paper nearby 

You can use a password manager to help keep track of your passwords. Ensure the password manager has multifactor authentication, notifies you about weak or reused passwords, and is reputable. You should consider not storing your most sensitive passwords (such as the one to your financial institution).  

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