Nervous about your privacy online? We've asked data and analytics experts how they protect their own privacy. Here's what they said.

Jessica Davis, Senior Editor

April 16, 2018

7 Min Read
Image: Somrak Jendee/Shutterstock

How do you protect your personal information online these days, especially in the wake of the recent Facebook and Cambridge Analytica news about a huge data leak of consumer data?

Do you turn on Amazon Alexa's microphones only when you need her help? Do you keep a Post-it note over your webcam? Have you turned off the microphone on your mobile phone? Will you delete your Facebook account?

It's one thing for the general public to watch a story on the local TV news and take it to heart by putting a piece of tape over their webcams. It's another thing entirely for people who work with data and data privacy on a daily basis to take such measures. They must know more, right? Two years ago Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg famously was caught having covered his laptop's webcam and microphone with tape, before most people ever heard of Cambridge Analytica.

Amid this wave of attention to online data privacy, we wanted to tap into the wisdom of the experts who will be presenting on the Interop ITX Data and Analytics track April 30 to May 4 in Las Vegas.

These professionals work with data and analytics every day. They've been watching the news. But more important, they have an insider view into the types of information companies collect about consumers and what those companies do with that information. And, these experts are also consumers themselves. Their data is out there on the Internet, too. So we asked them what measures they take in their own personal lives to protect their data privacy, and a few of them felt safe enough to actually reply. Here's some of what they said.

Unlike Mark Zuckerberg, Scott Robinson, director of business intelligence at Lucina Health, doesn't bother covering up his own webcam. He considers himself a low-value target for webcam hijackers.

"I can't imagine anyone actually coming up with an even vaguely compelling reason to hack my laptop webcam," he told InformationWeek. "It's not like a laptop webcam is taking in an absorbing view of a bank lobby or a Wal-Mart parking lot. At best, it's catching a corner of the Beatles poster behind my desk. Really, if anybody really needs to secretly watch me typing that badly, well, I'm flattered."

Interop ITX Data and Analytics track chair Karen Lopez, who is a senior project management and data architect with InfoAdvisors admits that she does take protective measures with that webcam.

"I have a vendor swag lens cover on my laptop camera -- not so much because I'm fearful of spying, but because I've participated in too many online meetings that autostart attendee's webcams. Let's just say I'm not always ready for that," Lopez said.

Amelia Estwick, program manager at the National Cypersecurity Institute at Excelsior College, reports a similar approach after having left her webcam cover open by accident on a day when she saw her webcam had captured her work-from-home look and put it on the large monitor in the conference room at the office.

"I now check to make sure my webcam cover is CLOSED before I join a meeting," she told InformationWeek.

At the other end of the spectrum, Jen Underwood is taking some serious measures with that webcam. She told InformationWeek: "After watching the Edward Snowden movie, I always use a camera blocker and sometimes use a biometrics blocker on my laptop."

What about Alexa?

Alexa is a new fixture in many households, and there are some data specialists who won't have it in their homes at all. Our data and analytics experts haven't thrown their digital assistants in the dumpster, however. They still have their place.

Jen Underwood has one, but doesn't plug it in.

"We received an Amazon Echo for the holidays and always keep it off," she said "We are already being constantly monitored by our cell phones. The latest Facebook fiasco confirmed my worst fears of how intrusive technology has become. Unlike the government that protects sensitive information requiring a 'need to know', the general public’s personal information appears to be fair game to sell. After congress agreed to allow ISPs sell private user browser history data last year, I learned about VPNs and Tor."

Estwick said that while she has several digital assistant devices in the house, she unplugs them unless she needs to use them.

"I don't trust just turning them off," she said. "I unplug because I know digital devices can be hacked to turn on without actually displaying any indicators they're on. Don't ask me how, just trust me on this one."

On the other end of the spectrum, Robinson admits that he has two Amazon Echos, one in his office and one in the kitchen.

"But their hearing is so good that I had to re-name one of them simply 'Computer' instead of 'Alexa' (so they wouldn't both answer at once). This gives me the opportunity to talk like Captain Picard on Star Trek."

As for eavesdroppers, Robinson said that they would be soon punished by listening to him singing along to classic rock music from Aerosmith or Guns 'n Roses.

Lopez is an equal opportunity employer when it comes to digital assistants. She reports she has "Alexa (several), Cortana, OK Google, Siri and my smart TV. Sometimes I catch them talking to each other. Skynet is here."

Delete Facebook?

Underwood reports that she's been posting on Facebook less than she has before, and she has considered deleting it, but hasn't yet. She works alone and thinks she might feel isolated without it.

Robinson isn't that bothered by the Facebook news.

"Certainly, we should be concerned that our data is given away to nefarious parties without our consent," he said. "But the on-going integration of the systems that support us socially and economically is not, in the end, a bad thing -- just a badly done thing," and one that he thinks we will get better at moving forward.

Lopez, again, is also a pragmatist.

"I'm of the theory that if I put something on the Internet, it's viewable by the public and will be until the end of time," she said. She conducts herself online according to those assumptions.

"I'm a hundred times more worried about Facebook's definition of 'community standards' because nothing I report seems to violate them," she added.

How Else Do You Protect Your Privacy Online?

Our panelists essentially agree that you have no expectation of privacy online, so you need to govern yourself accordingly.

Estwick said: "I realize my data is out there so I try to monitor and mitigate exposure; I also enjoy confusing the data that is already out there. For example, when I have to create an account that doesn't necessarily need my personal data but requires it, I enter all kinds of pseudo personal data!"

Underwood said she has avoided product upgrades to protect her privacy.

"I refuse to install Windows 10. Last year, I invested in a Mac laptop -- a first for me," she said. "Although I am boring and law abiding, I don't care for the extreme levels of digital monitoring that were baked into Windows 10. I have started exploring a migration to GSuite or Zoho One since Microsoft announced the personal account monitoring changes coming this May."

Lopez has the following advice for those who want to do a better job of protecting their privacy online:

"I realize how impossible this is, but I actually read the terms of service," she said. "I check what apps I've authorized regularly. I make sure I try to understand what uses I'm authorizing. And plenty of times I back out of using a nifty service or app because their terms are unacceptable to me. Sometimes I have to unfriend people because I can see they are practicing unsafe computing on a regular basis. I can continue to be real life friends, but not online."

Want to find out more about data, analytics, and privacy, from these and other top experts? Make sure you check out the Data and Analytics lineup at Interop ITX, April 30 to May 4.

About the Author(s)

Jessica Davis

Senior Editor

Jessica Davis is a Senior Editor at InformationWeek. She covers enterprise IT leadership, careers, artificial intelligence, data and analytics, and enterprise software. She has spent a career covering the intersection of business and technology. Follow her on twitter: @jessicadavis.

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