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5 Privacy Tips As COVID-19 Pushes Life Online

Professional and social life has moved online - exacerbating the privacy perils that confront everyone in the digital realm. Solutions are out there, beginning with awareness.

Photo by Markus Spiske
Photo by Markus Spiske

The coronavirus pandemic has upended much of modern life. Many of the changes can be reasonably assumed to be temporary — but some may have lasting impact. One of the most profound shifts has been in fact an amplification of something long in the works: the transition of professional life (as well as personal) to online. 

As some of this momentum preceded the pandemic, it feels like more of an evolution than a revolution. But COVID-19 could cause a step function that is disruptive. There are tremendous advantages to working together in a shared space. But for at least some people, the new reality may prove workable and they may continue working from home at least part of the time — and more than would have been the case without the crisis. It seems likely we will see an uptick in remote work.

After all, everyday office work means travel time and traffic jams and babysitting expenses and office rent. And the case is even more compelling against business travel, with the expense, time and even risks involved. So one can easily envision a near future in which some of the offices in towers remain empty and airlines and hotels struggle, while cloud service stocks break records and many more people are online all the time for everything.

In such a future, online privacy will be more important than ever. It may not look that way given the singular focus of news stories on containing the virus spread. But consider all the new vulnerabilities emerging. Zoom, for example, has become the most popular free app in the Apple store during the coronavirus. And while its presence is increasingly seen throughout our professional and social lives, its popularity has shined a light on a number of unfortunate privacy issues

The quarantine period presents its own special dangers. To begin with, given the overwhelming difficulty and distractions, companies could become lax on data security. We should meticulously follow data protection guidelines and remember that the crisis does not change our standards. 

Even more acutely, the quarantine period has created a dangerous scenario for people who work from home and find themselves needing to entertain children who are quarantined with them. Many take the easy way out and hand over their phones to their kids to play something on them. This means the kids can also access their photos, documents and other content that may be age-sensitive, work-related or otherwise sensitive or vulnerable: think about bank account information — or emails from teachers.

Already, the dangers confronting us from apps and devices we use every day are greater than widely understood. As we are pushed online, here are 5 privacy tips to consider: 

  1. Be Anti-Social on Social Media Permissions: More time at home likely means more new apps for both personal and professional use. To make new account creation easier, many apps rely on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram authentication, often asking for access to account information in exchange. Be scrupulous in reviewing these requests, and allow as little access as you can. Every bit of information you provide is likely another piece of personal data sold and another security vulnerability. 
  2. Hide Your Location: As locations around the world become COVID-19 hotspots, it might be more important than ever to hide your location when browsing the web or shopping online. It’s regular e-commerce practice to fluctuate prices based on location, during a pandemic when resources are even more strained, this practice could be expected to get worse. 
  3. Use a Virtual Private Network: Staff working from home without a solid VPN can lead to data breaches. Hackers just need to find the weak link – the one employee without a VPN or a safe network could be a back door for the entire company’s employee or financial information to be compromised. 
  4. Your Camera Roll is Not a Filing Cabinet: As we share confidential documents such as tax returns and medical information from our phones, camera rolls and iPhone folders should not be trusted for storage. The same goes for images: a fairly simple phone hack can mean all of your images and private documents can be compromised and sold to third parties.  
  5. Similar Passwords Create More Risk: You’ve heard this advice before, but it bears repeating, especially now. Our new normal has pushed us to sign up for a myriad of new online platforms and services. While our distraction may make it tempting to continue with our universal username and password, we are increasingly at risk every time we choose not to create unique credentials. If you’re using one (or a slight variation) of the same password for multiple  accounts, it only takes one compromise to unlock everything: your banks and credit cards, social media, email. The more accounts with the same password, the greater the risk. 

There are solutions out there, this is more about our collective mindset than any particular tool.  Privacy protection should be understood to serve an increasingly critical function for society: as our homes and offices go almost entirely online, we cannot leave the door wide open to thieves. 

Winston Churchill warned us to “never let a good crisis go to waste.” Let’s spend our quarantine protecting ourselves, not expanding our vulnerabilities.  

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