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Practical Techie: Web users need awareness on how personal data moves in cyberspace

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Very few Web users are really aware of how their personal data is being used by the myriad internet platforms that we interact with regularly in our digital society.

To create awareness about this issue, every year, at the end of January, the world commemorates Data Privacy Day hoping to empower individuals and companies to take action and guarantee protection to cybernauts.

It’s all based on the notion that firms need to understand that privacy is good for business. Data Privacy Day began in the United States and Canada in January 2008 as an extension of the Data Protection Day celebration in Europe. Data Protection Day commemorates the Jan. 28, 1981, signing of Convention 108, the first legally binding international treaty dealing with privacy and data protection.

The National Cybersecurity Alliance proposes that Data Privacy Day is the signature event for a greater privacy awareness and education effort. Year-round, NCSA educates consumers on how they can own their online presence and shows organizations how privacy is good for business.

ADVISE — As individual internet users feel an increasing lack of control over their personal data, it’s wise to understand the types of data each of us generate online, how it’s collected, shared and used. One good piece of advice is to consider personal information as if it were money which needs to be valued and protected. For example, info about purchase history and your computer’s Internet Protocol address, both of which have coveted value to businesses. 

A user also needs to make informed decisions about whether or not to share your data with certain digital companies, such as apps that request too much personal data such as geographic location, contacts list and photos album. Be thoughtful about what data is irrelevant to the app in exchange for their services. Delete unused apps on your internet-connect devices and keep others secure by performing updates. 

Also, judiciously manage your privacy settings and set them to your comfort level for information sharing. This page helps users to manage your privacy settings. 

BUSINESS — Companies must create a culture of privacy in the organization from the onset.  Firms that do intense web commerce must be protective of user data by inspiring trust. If a company collects data, it must protect it. Data breaches can not only lead to great financial loss, but a loss in reputation and customer trust. Security measures must be in place to keep individuals’ personal information safe from inappropriate and unauthorized access. Personal data must be used in a fair manner and only collected for relevant and legitimate purposes.

Frequently, companies must conduct an assessment of its data collection practices. Understand which privacy laws and regulations apply to each type of business. Educate employees of their and your organization’s obligations to protecting personal information. 

Google — On occasion of Data Privacy Day, Google sent newsismybusiness.com a communique stating it wants to help tech companies know less about users by releasing what it calls a homegrown differential privacy tool. This, in spite of the fact that as a as a data-driven company, Google’s business model hinges on knowing as much about its users as possible.

But as the public show evermore concern, Google says it was imperative to invest in the field of data science known as “differential privacy,” which focuses on carefully adding random noise to an individual user’s information before it’s uploaded to the cloud. That way, a company can still analyze datasets without being able to single people out.

Thus Google’s new set of open source differential privacy libraries not only offer the equations and models needed to set boundaries and constraints on identifying data, but also include an interface to make it easier for more developers to actually implement the protections. The communique explains that the idea is to make it possible for companies to mine and analyze their database information without invasive identity profiles or tracking. 

Google currently uses differential privacy libraries to protect all different types of information, like location data as in Google Maps. In a sense, it’s similar to cryptography which makes it complicated and difficult to access user data one a whim. Especially, mining from for personal census or medical record databases.

Author Details
Author Rafael Matos is a veteran journalist, a professor of digital narratives and university mentor. He may be contacted at cccrafael@gmail.com.
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