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Digital DNA: 'Every time we go online we leave a bit of ourselves behind'

Being alert to how our data is being used and asking why it’s being gathered in the first place equips us with the skills we need to protect our digital DNA, writes Sean Crowley.

Image: Shutterstock/Sergey Nivens

EVERY TIME WE go online we leave a little bit of ourselves behind, and most of the time we aren’t even aware of it.

An insatiable desire for information 24/7 is fed by the immediacy of the internet and the ease of access to it from our smartphones. While most of us can’t fathom a day without these devices, it is this very immediacy that compromises how our personal data – our digital DNA – is shared.

The most notable sign of the GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation) deadline was the influx of emails into inboxes with requests to ‘stay in touch’, many from companies we didn’t recall engaging with. Social media was awash with countless notifications too, all trying to capture consent.

It gave us an opportunity to question the access that we grant to companies and social media platforms to our data. Many of us strengthened by newfound knowledge on the power of social media even deactivated our accounts.


But while our understanding of the GDPR has improved, has it actually made any difference to how we operate and share data online? Are we any wiser?

GDPR has been discussed in most workplaces and many of us have had some training to ensure compliance, but have we transferred this into protecting our own digital DNA, or are we simply continuing to leak it oblivious to the potential consequences?

How our digital DNA is shared 

Many of us download a new App without reading the small print so that we can access it quickly. We rarely stop to check what data they are requesting access to, simply clicking to install. Does a game App really need access to our contacts, emails and text messages and is it a trustworthy developer?

We accept cookies without considering what data they are gathering from us so that we can continue to browse a website. Cookies track activity as we move from one website to another, building a profile of who we are. Using ‘incognito mode’ on a browsers will keep our activity private but not necessarily from the websites we visit, investing in a VPN can provide better anonymity.

On a more sinister note, social media can be used to harvest personal information by cyber criminals.

Sensitive data

Being tagged in a photo on Facebook can expose sensitive data without us even realising. Appearing alongside a sibling of our mothers may answer the question ‘what is your mother’s maiden name?’ information commonly used for security purposes for accessing online accounts. This seemingly harmless action could help someone access our personal accounts.

Be mindful too of accepting unknown friend requests on social media, cover the camera on your device when not in use, and never send potentially compromising photographs online. Holiday snaps shared can also indicate that our home is unoccupied, the digital equivalent of a post box full of unopened mail, acting as a handy hint for would-be intruders.

Ensuring we log out of personal accounts each time we use them is also key, as failing to do so may give those with malicious intentions access to sensitive information. This is especially important if using a shared or public computer. Likewise leaving our Wi-Fi scanning mode enabled on a device means that the networks we connect to are visible, effectively allowing others to track our movements.

Being vigilant

Buying online typically means selecting autofill to complete payment, and entering these in each time may seem inconvenient, but will reduce the risk of them getting into the wrong hands. Consider the number of companies that have our payment details and then the potential of a hack as happened recently with an online ticket vendor.

Our data is captured each time we interact with our devices.  Would we be willing to play fast and loose with the information we reveal online if posed with similar questions from a stranger on the street? It’s doubtful. The more vigilant we are, the more protected we are in relation to our online activity.

Being alert to how our data is being used and asking why it’s being gathered in the first place equips us with the skills we need to protect our digital DNA, in identifying the leaks and reducing the associated risks. 

Sean Crowley is Senior Manager of Information Governance at the Cybersecurity and Information Resilience Division at BSI.

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