Meet the New Year, same as the Old Year

by | Dec 31, 2012 | Data Protection

It’s always difficult to mark the arbitrary end of an entirely artificial unit of time by picking resolutions to change your life in unfeasibly unrealistic ways that you’ll never manage to achieve. So instead of promising that you’ll exercise more, drink less, and stop massacring innocent civilians with drone strikes, why not take this opportunity to have a stranger recommend some Data Protection themed resolutions instead? You can eat and drink as much as you like and tell Duncan Bannatyne to stick his gym membership somewhere awkward, and still keep up with them.

1)      Back up your stuff

This should not be anyone’s resolution in the 21st Century, but numerous times over this festive season I have met or seen tweets from people who were mugged, burgled or otherwise the victims of theft, and still others who saw their computers or laptops go belly-up. One of the stories – a children’s author whose treasured work was apparently gone forever – was heart-breaking and yet completely avoidable. Repeat after me: my data and my equipment are not the same thing as each other.  No matter how costly and inconvenient the loss of your equipment might be, your data does not need to go the same way.

I have backup OCD.  All my music is in the iCloud. I back up my Mac to an external hard drive using Apple’s Time Machine, many of the same documents are in Dropbox as well (I hold back anything I consider to be confidential just in case). I have a couple of additional hard drives that I periodically dump everything on and then hide someone unlikely. This means that if someone breaks into my house and steals all of my (encrypted) toys, they’ll have a bonanza at the car boot sale, but the things I cannot replace – my holiday photos, my almost-finished Data Protection book, my actually finished but apparently unpublishable novel – still exist. Even if the thieves took the back-up hard drive, I’d have a copy of my data somewhere else. I have done some Faustian deals with some companies I don’t trust to achieve this, but I’ve decided it’s worth the risk.

We live a digital world; many of the things you treasure the most, that you need to earn a living or get your qualifications are likely to be digital. Many back-ups can be done automatically and some of them are even free. You have no excuse. If you haven’t already, sort it out now.

2)      Just Say No

The next time someone rings you up and, before whatever transaction they want to do, asks you to confirm some details, resolve to do this simple thing. Say no. You will ring them back with good grace, but when Johnny Call Centre wants you to give your data out, Just Say No. The Identity Theft Menace is wildly overhyped by bullshit-hawking fear mongers, some of them with agendas that go far beyond avoiding credit card fraud. Moreover, I believe that much of the fraud that goes on originates not with the customer’s sloppy data handling, but with poor security at the credit card company or the bank. (and relax…)

However, ringing people up and asking them for the credentials required to get access to accounts is totally irresponsible. It softens the public up to give out their information and sooner or later, the caller may not be some bored minimum wage phone jockey. I had this experience recently, and the card company (Tesco) were clearly unsurprised that I wanted to ring them back. Within five minutes of the original call, I was even speaking to the same person who had called me.

The only way this ludicrous and unnecessary security risk may stop happening is if enough of us resist it – even if it’s a fraud enquiry, tell them you’ll call them back.

3)      Read the small print

There is a massive, uncontrolled and unmeasured market in personal data in the UK. Your personal details are bought and sold every day. Some of this trade is illicit and will always be difficult to control. However, much of it is entirely legal and the laziness or ignorance of the average citizen allows it to happen, and incidentally, allows the cowboys to claim that they are trading ‘opted-in’ data, because who can really say what boxes they have or haven’t ticked?

So from today forward, never fill in a form unless you have read all of it. The small the font size, the more incomprehensible the legal gibberish, the more keen you should be to push on. Some websites offer you a simple plain English explanation of how they intend to use your data – they are the exception. In 2013, do not fill in a form, do not sign a contract, do not surrender your personal information to *anyone* without reading the small print. Years ago, my Dad was signing a credit agreement in a well-known catalogue shop, and he practically had to wrestle the woman behind the counter to get a look at the T&Cs. As we live in a digital world, much of our interactions with those keen to get our details are done virtually – so take five minutes of your precious time, read the small print and make sensible choices about what you want to happen to your information.

4       Just Say No Again

A short while ago, I saw a message appear on Twitter. It was brief but staggeringly unambiguous. I’m too squeamish to tell you exactly what it said, but it was pretty obviously a misfired Direct Message to a secret lover. Minutes later it vanished. I don’t know how many people saw it, but none of us could have been under any illusion about what it might have meant.

A well-known cancer charity is encouraging us all to go for a month without alcohol. May I humbly suggest that you spend January NOT sharing the intimate details of your personal life with everyone else? If this is too much, perhaps try this alternative: don’t share the intimate details of someone else’s personal life – your mates, your family, your kids, whoever it happens to be. Just experiment with a personal life, rather than a shop window, and see how you like it. I was really disappointed the first time I heard someone come out with the line about social networking that the user is the product, not the customer (I thought I was the first to think of it), but the idea is vitally important and should not lose its salience by being a cliché. You may not be a beautiful and unique snowflake, but you are equally not a box of Cornflakes. Do not let your life be commoditised so easily. Stop sharing, even if only for a little while. See what happens.

Or alternatively, just imagine what will happen the next time you go for a job and all of this stuff is available to the interview panel.

And that’s all. Whoever you are, I hope you’re in good fettle and that the New Year brings you good luck and fine dining. My resolutions are to wear my bike helmet more often and be nicer to other people. As I do neither of these things at all, I may even succeed. Chin chin!