Staying safe online is more important than ever, experts say

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See also “Convenience or privacy, virtual assistant users debate

Thousands of voice queries are made each second on devices like Siri, Alexa and Google. Virtual assistants are one of the many ways that technology and companies can record data and information about users, which has become a point of concern for some users. (Morgan March)

Cybersecurity threats continue to multiply in today’s world of ever-progressing technology. Experts say user vigilance could help combat the problem.

Every device that is connected to the internet — especially if it enabled with a virtual assistant like Alexa, Siri or Google Assistant — is constantly tracking its users, and cell phones have become one of the main culprits for helping companies get their hands on user information.

“People aren’t aware of what information is being collected, but perhaps more importantly, where it goes, who has access to it and potential ways a bad actor could get access to their data,” said Xinru Page, a professor of computer information systems at Bentley University.

Approximately 81% of Americans own a smartphone, according to a study conducted in 2019 by Pew Research. When the same study was conducted in 2011, only 35% of Americans owned a smartphone. 

Companies like Apple, Google and Facebook are collecting data about smartphone users from brand preference to geographic location to credit card spending patterns. The majority of the information collected is used for advertising purposes.

Merrill Oveson, the information technology director at Utah Valley University, said he feels the real concern with online tracking is what information companies and advertisers have and what they plan on doing with the information.

“If the information only pertains to data that is easy to ascertain and will only be used for trying to get me to buy something, then there really is no concern,” Oveson said. “What I do care about is sensitive data such as Social Security numbers, credit card numbers and medical history data.”

Individuals must decide for themselves whether the risks associated with using technology and being online are worth it or not.  

“Everything is going to come with a downside. Understanding the data privacy issue is obviously going to scare people,” said BYU communications professor Adam Durfee.

The more personal information users put online, the more danger they are in of having that information stolen and used improperly, Durfee said.

Although it might not be possible to prevent companies from tracking information about their users, it is possible to protect sensitive information through online security measures. 

So how do individuals protect their sensitive information? Oveson listed six main ways that people can protect themselves online:

  • People should avoid giving out their Social Security number, especially while online. Sometimes it is absolutely necessary; however, more often than not, people can opt-out of entering that information.
  • Online shopping is continually growing in popularity, but it can still be a threat to security if not done wisely. Users should look for the “https” in the web address before making an online purchase.  
  • Individuals should frequently review their credit card statements to look for any unusual activity or purchases. They may even consider getting a new card every so often. 
  • Social media users should be careful about what information they freely give. Posting about plans for an upcoming vacation or the names of children can be dangerous. Secure information like this could be used to commit crimes. 
  • When online users don’t know or trust someone, they shouldn’t trust them with their personal information. If something sounds fishy, it might be a phishing attack.
  • Street smarts are critical when using technology. “Realize that there are people out there who don’t care about you or your family,” Oveson said. “They are willing to do whatever they can to steal from you or harm your family.”

Experts say that forming habits of cybersecurity can become as natural as checking that the front door is locked when users are intentional and consistent about their practices.

“There is a commonly acknowledged ‘privacy paradox’ where people say they are privacy concerned if you ask them, but then their behaviors don’t seem to reflect that concern in terms of disclosure and oversharing,” Page said.

Experts like Oveson and Page insist that users implement wise online behaviors to safeguard themselves from the looming threats.

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