How to Take Control of Your Data & Privacy

Data Privacy

You may already know this, but you don’t want to hear it . . . you are a product. You have forfeited your data and privacy for convenience.

The modern advertising ecosystem is known as the attention economy.  I like to call it surveillance capitalism. Advertisers, politicians, influencers, everyone wants your attention. Your data is being used for marketers to deliver personalized advertisements to you. But who cares? You like consuming stuff. Buy, buy, buy. You don’t care if you see advertisements about things that you like.

However, it doesn’t stop there. Your data is being used to influence many other aspects of life, including politics. Evidence of this can be seen in the Facebook–Cambridge Analytica data scandal. Cambridge Analytica harvested the personal data of millions of people’s Facebook profiles and influenced the 2016 U.S. election and the UK’s decision to leave Brexit. Due to this, Facebook was recently fined $5 billion for this scandal. Up to this point, Facebook’s response to this incident was. “Oops, sorry about that, we will do better.” I’m paraphrasing obviously. But, they don’t seem to care.

FTC slaps Facebook with record $5 billion fine, orders privacy oversight.

I get it . . . we have grown to love/depend on Google, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Snapchat. What is there to not to love about these services? They are excellent tools that provide a lot of upsides. They are free and they allow you to connect with people from all over the world. Is it possible that the downside might outweigh the upside?

Recently, another tech firm made headlines by creating the viral FaceApp. Everyone loved making their faces look old and crusty and sharing their photo everywhere. FaceApp now owns access to more than 150 million people’s faces and names. Did I mention that this app was developed by a Russian company based out of California? We couldn’t trust Facebook or Cambridge Analytica, why should we trust our face and name with a Russian corporation? If you used FaceApp, did you read their terms of use? You should, it is alarming.

Our Services may allow you and other users to create, post, store and share content, including messages, text, photos, videos, software and other materials (collectively, “User Content”). User Content does not include user-generated filters. Except for the license you grant below, you retain all rights in and to your User Content, as between you and FaceApp. Further, FaceApp does not claim ownership of any User Content that you post on or through the Services.

You grant FaceApp a perpetual, irrevocable, nonexclusive, royalty-free, worldwide, fully-paid, transferable sub-licensable license to use, reproduce, modify, adapt, publish, translate, create derivative works from, distribute, publicly perform and display your User Content and any name, username or likeness provided in connection with your User Content in all media formats and channels now known or later developed, without compensation to you. When you post or otherwise share User Content on or through our Services, you understand that your User Content and any associated information (such as your [username], location or profile photo) will be visible to the public.

You grant FaceApp consent to use the User Content, regardless of whether it includes an individual’s name, likeness, voice or persona, sufficient to indicate the individual’s identity. By using the Services, you agree that the User Content may be used for commercial purposes. You further acknowledge that FaceApp’s use of the User Content for commercial purposes will not result in any injury to you or to any person you authorized to act on its behalf. You acknowledge that some of the Services are supported by advertising revenue and may display advertisements and promotions, and you hereby agree that FaceApp may place such advertising and promotions on the Services or on, about, or in conjunction with your User Content. The manner, mode and extent of such advertising and promotions are subject to change without specific notice to you. You acknowledge that we may not always identify paid services, sponsored content, or commercial communications as such.

Every post you make, every page you like, every ad you click, every web search and every social interaction you perform online feeds giant Silicon Valley companies with A LOT of personal data about YOU. The interesting thing is that we blindly trust these companies with our information. But why? Time and time again they have abused it, get away with it.

Let’s be real, surveillance capitalism is here.

Where do we draw the line? These companies want to create compelling, useful products that get you to use their services. However, WE need to be responsible for our own behaviors. We need to control how much time we spend using their services and how much information we give them. If we leave it up to giant profit seeking corporations, they will not do this for us.

Think about it, the amount of time you spend on your phone or in front of a computer, now you ask yourself. Do I really like this stuff? Do I really need to buy a bunch of crap I don’t need? Did an algorithm tell me to like this stuff? If I spend the vast majority of my day online, are my decisions actually mine, or are my decisions being engineered? Could this affect other aspects of my life, not just my spending habits through advertisements? Has it impacted me politically? Do I have my own personal beliefs and values or am I subtly being influenced over time by the stuff I see online?

Without your data, social media algorithms cannot feed you curated advertising. Without curated advertising, what might your digital life begin to look like given the fact that we all spend way too much time online? What might happen to the business model’s of these corporations when their curated advertising platforms are no longer as effective because they don’t know anything about you?

The following steps will help you stop giving these companies as much data. It can also decrease the likelihood that your data be use for something other than personalized advertisements.

1. Browse the Web Privately

This isn’t perfect. We can’t totally trust another browser 100%. Don’t trust me, do your research. However, this is an alternative. Download a private web browser like Brave. This browser will block trackers allowing you to enjoy private, secure and fast browsing. It is private because it blocks trackers. It can be faster because you do not use bandwidth to download ads, they are blocked. You can also get Brave for iOS and Android.

2. Use a Different Search Engine

Stop using a search engine that tracks you. Google tracks your every move. Use DuckDuckGo to search online. It may take some getting used to. It probably isn’t as good as what you are used to. Slowly try to use this search engine more than others. DuckDuckGo claims to be the “search engine that doesn’t track you.” Don’t trust me. Do your research. You can never be 100% sure that a third party actually does what they say they do.

3. Check to See if You Have Been Compromised

There is a free online service called have I been pwned? which allows you to enter your email address and see whether any accounts have been hacked. You should change any and all passwords that use this account.

4. Use Encrypted Email

Stop using publicly available free email providers like Gmail. There is no such thing as a free lunch. It is difficult to ditch email services. You’ve probably been using the same email address for years. They are collecting our information. Use an alternative email provider like ProtonMail. ProtonMail is a privacy-enhanced email service in Switzerland. It offers end-to-end encryption, a Gmail-like user interface, secure compatibility with other email providers and does not track its users. Do your research. I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again, don’t trust me, you can never be 100% sure that a third party actually does what they say they do.

5. Use Encrypted Text Messaging

At a minimum, you should use Whatsapp for all your texting. If you want to get serious about messaging privacy, use Edward Snowden’s preferred service, Signal. Start with a small circle of friends and expand outwards.

6. Download & Install a VPN

A Virtual Private Network (VPN) allows you to browse the internet without anyone tracking your IP address. If you ever connect to public Wi-Fi, you should have a VPN. Decent ones aren’t free, but worth it. You can use them across multiple devices such as your phone or other computers. There are many VPN products on the market. Here are a few, don’t trust me, do your research. Private Internet Access, IPVanish, and TunnelBear.

7. Delete Unnecessary Social Media Accounts – Digital Detox

This is the hard part.

In the same way that you declutter your house, you must declutter your data presence online. If you don’t use something, get rid of it. If you aren’t trolling Tinder for hookups anymore, delete your account, delete the app from your phone. The data will always be there. It will be less likely leveraged by advertisers and not publicly visible on the web.

If this seems too hard, that’s okay. Some accounts might be absolutely necessary for work or for other reasons. Strive to get rid of as many social media accounts as you can. They are all hoarding your data and selling it. These companies often times do this with profits being their primary objective. Profits often take priority over improving our quality of life, our environment and community. If you aren’t using them, they are just a distraction.

This, of all the steps, may be the most difficult for most people. The thought of not seeing what your friends are doing may be unbearable. But, there is an entire world around you, waiting for you. People will prevail, while platforms like MySpace and Vine fade to a distant memory. In ten years, the social media you commonly use today may no longer exist.

I recommend focusing on one social media account at time. Do not try to ditch all of them at once, that is a sure way to fail your digital detox. Focus on the one you use the least. Physically go into the account, delete the account, remove the app from your device. Do that and see how it goes for one month. Next month, try a different one. Repeat this process month to month until you have successfully decluttered as much as you can.

Stop Using Credit Cards

Every credit card you use shares your information. Some credit cards allow you to “turn off” the sharing of some data. However, the vast majority of the data is shared without the ability to stop it. Don’t believe me? Take a look at Capital One’s Data Sharing Policy. You can only stop three of the seven options.

Here is the deal. I’m not a financial adviser. If you don’t have cash to buy something, you shouldn’t be buying it in the first place. I know what you are going to say. But . . . but . . . but . . . I pay my credit card bill in full every month, and I get free points for using the card. Yes, yes you do. But why are the points FREE? They are free because they want to keep you using the card, hopefully catch you in a bad spot, collect interest, while SHARING YOUR DATA. If you want your purchase history to be kept private, stop using a credit card.

I’m not suggesting that you cut up your cards. Not at all. Those can be useful in emergency situations. What I’m saying is to limit your usage of your cards. You obviously can’t write a check or pay cash for your Spotify, Netflix or your Amazon Prime subscription. What I am suggesting is that you use cash for day to day expenditures. This eliminates a paper trail of your purchase habits and income. Use your credit cards for things that most certainly have to be paid using a credit card.

Summary

Be an adult, take responsibility for your life, this includes privacy and your data. Do not wait for a corporation whose only interest is profit to help you. Do not wait for government regulation to protect you. Do your research. Be an adult, own it, change your reality.

How to Force Excel to Keep Leading Zeros When Opening a CSV File

If you frequently export data to csv files, I’m sure you are well aware of the problem when opening those files in Excel. Excel automatically chops off any leading zeros on numbers that start with a zero. This can be a problem for IDs or zip codes that start with a zero. This is a major pain in the ass, especially if you do not want your users to have to jump through hoops to solve the problem. The zeros are actually in the csv, Excel for some reason just hides them.

The below solution will solve the dropping of the leading zero problem. It does not require any extra steps by the user. In your csv file, simply wrap the data that contains the number with leading zeros like so:

“=””0000012345″””,Stiglitz,Hugo,123 Some Street, Some town,Some State
“=””0000054321″””,Soze,Keyser,123 Some Street, Some town,Some State
“=””0000045312″””,Christmas,Lloyd,123 Some Street, Some town,Some State

In the above example, all 4 leading zeros on each ID will be maintained in the excel file when it is opened.