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Data Privacy is Important—But, What Does it Mean?

In simple terms, data privacy is the ongoing set of big and small decisions we all make every day that determines how digital information is collected, stored, and disseminated. We all have decisions to make about our personal information. As part of our roles at Northwestern, many of us also make decisions about others’ personal information and University data. This week is Data Privacy Week and a great time to familiarize yourself with ways to be a better data protector and understand how Northwestern protects institutional data.

Getting Personal About Data Privacy

Many experts would agree that the number one risk to individual cybersafety is lack of awareness. From social media to online shopping to telehealth appointments to remote work, our lives and the digital world become more and more intertwined daily. Unfortunately, many people don’t understand the extent of that entanglement. For example, the National Cybersecurity Alliance cites Cisco’s 2021 Consumer Privacy Survey in reporting that 76 percent of individuals said it is too hard to understand what’s going on [with their data] and how their information is being used. The same survey also reveals that 86 percent of individuals care about data privacy.    

Understand the privacy/convenience tradeoff

Before you even use their services, many accounts and websites ask for access to personal information, such as your geographic location, contacts list, and photo album. This personal information has tremendous value to businesses and allows some to offer you their services at little to no cost. Don’t automatically comply with requests to access your data.

Make informed decisions about sharing your data with businesses by considering the amount of personal information they are asking for and weighing it against the benefits you may receive in return.

  • Be thoughtful about who gets that information and wary of websites, apps, or services that require access to information that is not relevant to the services they are offering.
  • Delete unused apps on your internet-connected devices and keep all apps secure by performing updates.
  • Keep your Internet-of-Things (IoT) in check. Be smart about securing all your smart devices and internet-equipped gadgets.

Manage your privacy

Once you have decided to use an app or set up a new account, check the privacy and security settings and set them to your comfort level for information sharing. Understand how to manage your privacy settings on apps and websites. Learn how.

Remember, each device, application, or browser you use will have different features to limit how and with whom you share information. With so many different settings to manage, staying on top of things can be challenging. Here are a few essential recommendations to focus on first:

  • Geolocation Data: Many apps ask you to share your location data to provide more relevant results. Ensure that you only share this data with apps you trust and that the apps use your information responsibly.
  • Contacts Data: Virtually all mail, message, and video conferencing apps allow you to sync your existing contacts with their services automatically. Share this data only with trusted sources, as not only is contact data yours, but it is your friends’ and family’s as well.
  • Camera and Photo Data: Social apps universally ask for access to your photo library and related camera data—which contains troves of private information. Be sure only the most trusted sources have access to this information. Also, double-check settings in the app to filter which photo files apps can access.

Protect your data

Data privacy and data security go hand in hand. And fortunately, there are numerous easy-to-implement steps that you can take to shore up your data and general cybersecurity:

  • Long, Unique Passwords: Thanks to automation, once a bad actor has compromised one password, they can quickly bounce it around other sites to access other accounts. Having long, strong, and unique passwords for each account immediately thwarts these “easy hacking” efforts and makes it much harder for hackers to crack a password in the first place.  
  • Password Managers: Password managers have redefined cybersecurity by providing a consolidated and secure hub for individuals to store their information. Password managers can even generate unique, secure passwords for you and store them automatically.
  • Multi-Factor Authentication (MFA): MFA has been found to block 99.9 percent of automated attacks when enabled and can ensure your data is protected, even if your credentials are compromised. Many organizations and service providers are increasingly offering MFA to individuals as an opt-in—if not requiring it, like Northwestern and many other higher education institutions. MFA is easier than ever to enable through platforms such as Northwestern’s choice for the service, Duo Mobile. Learn more about MFA at Northwestern.  
  • Virtual Private Network (VPN): A VPN works by shielding your data in two ways. It redirects the internet traffic between your device and your connected network, disguising where your computer, phone, or other device is when making contact with websites. A VPN also encrypts information you send across the internet, making it unreadable to anyone who intercepts your traffic. Learn more about Northwestern’s VPN.

Institutional Safeguards and Stewardship  

Did you know that Northwestern is a Data Privacy Champion? Aside from partnering with the National Cybersecurity Alliance to promote data privacy awareness, Northwestern upholds a staunch commitment to safeguarding University data and information collected from those interacting with University websites and online resources. Read Northwestern’s Privacy Statement to learn more about how the University protects data.  

Those across the University who are charged with helping to manage and protect data are asked to observe the following core principles:  

  • Collect only the data you need to do your work, shielding data in alignment with the sensitivity of the information.  
  • Inform people how their data will be collected and usedeither through notice or active agreementproviding the opportunity for them to opt-out of data collection processes.  
  • Remember that the data you engage with through your work is about peoplecolleagues, students, and other members of the Northwestern community. Showing respect for their information is critical.  

To learn more about Data Privacy Week and what you can do to stay safe online, explore the National Cybersecurity Alliance resources. Be sure to follow @Northwestern_IT and stay informed about how we do our part to champion data privacy throughout the year.