It’s okay to admit it now: even though Amazon workers around the world seem to be regularly on strike, most of us couldn’t help but browse this Prime Day. After all, sometimes it’s a good laugh to see what gadgets people will order in the name of free shipping.
Now you’re back to answering emails, writing research reports, or maybe still procrastinating on a different website, but everywhere you look there’s the avocado slicer you decided to leave out of your cart. And those bluetooth headphones you decided to pass up will now haunt you forever.
Such is the way of life in a world proliferated with data. This is, unfortunately, the same world where we agree to “terms and conditions” without bothering to read them, and suddenly a Russian tech firm may have access to all of our faces.
Is it too late to save our data?
The truth is that if you’re a long-time Amazon subscriber, had FaceApp before it was cool, or really if you’re online at all--your data is probably out there somewhere. There’s likely no way to scrub your data from the face of the planet, or even every app your smartphone has interacted with.
Rob Mardisalu, the founder of TheBestVPN, explains how the internet, though incredibly useful, can become incredibly precarious because “it is a collection of servers responsible for storing websites and serving them to anyone who wants to use them.” This is great for web-surfing in general, but not good for your privacy, as “those servers talk with each other all the time, including sharing your data to ultimately let you browse a page.”
In some cases, this data out in the cybersphere isn’t much to worry about, though such cases are incredibly few. These days we use the internet for just about everything, even our personal banking, shopping, paying bills, and other vital tasks that also happen to require very sensitive information.
In the case of business, cybersecurity risk increases significantly, too. Most businesses are not just responsible for storing their data, but also the personal information of customers, clients, employees, partners, and more. It’s remarkable and terrifying, but 2019 is too late to go back to paper files.
What can we do?
Most data security experts recommend that the first step is practicing good internet hygiene. Diversify your passwords, use safe web browsers, and don’t click on any suspicious emails. But what goes beyond antivirus and SSL protocols?
A VPN is one of the most popular data privacy precautions to date, especially since the Federal Communication Commission decided to repeal broadband privacy rules in 2017. Jerome Joseph, policy counsel at the Center for Democracy and Technology, tells TIME that “VPNs have exploded in popularity” as a “way to avoid the watchful eye” of Internet Service Providers (ISPs).
ISP? VPN? IDK!
Okay, yes, there’s a lot of acronyms at work here. VPN stands for Virtual Private Network. Mardisalu describes a VPN server as “the third party that connects to the web on your behalf.” VPN software encrypts your data before it gets to the ISP or other eyes in the walls of the web, sending it off to the VPN server, and then to the website you’re visiting.
This fools the websites hungry for your data, because the data is coming from the VPN server, and not directly from you. Not to mention that it is encrypted so that it becomes more difficult to interpret and misuse. Definitely safer than internet browsing on its own.
But then who has my data?
You guessed it, even with a VPN, your data is still not just yours. In order to protect and encrypt your web data, VPN providers do have to see it. Gennie Gebhart, associate director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, says this loophole is why “more often than not, VPNs just shift your risk.”
VPNs, just like your antivirus and usual privacy precautions, add another layer of security. With so much data out there, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution. It’s more like a series of solutions working together to eventually create an entire outfit. Maybe VPN is the left shoe, the favorite flannel, or the cool beanie in this arrangement.
In any case, VPN will not solve all of your data security problems, but it is certainly a worthwhile investment. Especially if you’re tired of looking at that avocado slicer in every corner of your browser.