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Mining your Digital Diamonds

Mining your Digital Diamonds

How to live a simpler, safer digital life


Recent analysis of more than 20,000 computer users worldwide discovered that people have an average of 90 online accounts. Americans have upwards of 130 online accounts including everything from social media, shopping and banking, to streaming services, fast food rewards and drugstore loyalty programs. And medical appointments. And DIY forums. And dating sites. And electronics warrantees. And prescription refills. And movie rentals. And paint colors libraries. And...

While all these accounts may have served a purpose at one time, this digital clutter is now a burden for many who feel buried in digital rubble. But with some time and focused effort, people can mine their “digital diamonds” to live a simpler, safer digital life.

Digital Rubble

In the early 2000s, a short-lived television reality show featured people living together in an empty house. They were only given a credit card, a computer and an internet connection. The goal of the show was for the participants to survive by only shopping online. As the show progressed, they struggled to find food, clothing and furniture to order and have delivered.

Fast forward 20 years and almost the opposite is true. It would be a daily struggle for the average person to live without the internet and smart technology. But with each convenient service a person wants to use, an account must be created with an email address, username and password. Multiply this by 50, 60 or even 70 accounts and it is almost impossible to keep track of it all.

“Everybody has their one favorite password,” says Bob Pacheco, chief technology officer for Tarrant County College. “There may be variations on it, but everybody does it. And, that’s terrible, because it doesn’t take that long for a hacker to discover it”.

Once a hacker uncovers the passwords, they can access untold amounts of information about account owners through direct access to the accounts or through phishing. Phishing is when cyber criminals attempt to access confidential data through nefarious emails, texts, social media contact or messaging apps. An example of this could be an email asking the user to submit their bank account number because there might have been suspicious activity. Once the hacker receives the bank number, they pair it up with the password to access the account and steal the account holder’s money. According to identity theft protection company, a person is hacked every three seconds on average. “There are tools out there that allows you to preview all your accounts that you’ve saved and see which ones have actually had breaches, and you should change your password,” said Pacheco.

Rule #1 of cybersecurity? If you don't want it hacked, write it on paper.

Robert Heyser
Director of Web Communications, TCC

Source of Stress

Having dozens of online accounts can not only be a risk for identity theft, but it can also have a negative impact on the mental health of the user.

“There are some downfalls to technology when an individual or organization uses it improperly,” says Divya Patel, counselor at TCC Southeast. “Overstimulation by constant exposure without breaks is harmful. It creates mental health concerns. Too many online accounts may cause stress, anxiety and other problems when it is not managed properly.

“Limiting our digital life will help us balance our life, improve well-being and appreciate the here and now. It will allow space for more meaningful interactions with our loved ones, time with nature and any other activities which we might want to practice mindfully.”

Think Before You Link

Professional organizing consultant Marie Kondo gained worldwide popularity when she taught people to tidy up their homes and keep only the things that “spark joy.” That concept applies not only to closets, kitchens and garages, but to online life, too.

Before clicking a link to sign up for a new account or an email newsletter, pause and ask a few questions. “Do I really need this? How often am I going to use it? Can I access the information or benefits another way? What are the risks of giving out my personal information when I sign up?”

“You would be amazed at the amount of personal information being collected when you are signing up for online accounts,” stated Kevin Moore, instructor of computer sciences for TCC Connect. “That information is being sold to the highest bidder. I would call it data harvesting. It gathers your web history, banking information, tracks what products you buy, how much time you spend online, your contacts outside of the app, as well as your political views. The list goes on.”

Once someone’s consumer profile is created, they can be monitored online and targeted with customized ads, junk email and spam phone calls, according to Moore.

Organizations are required by law to have Privacy Policies that outline how they are going to use Personally Identifiable Information (PII) and keep it safe once a user opens an account. However, human error can still play a role in one’s information being vulnerable. In 2017, a mistake by a single employee at a credit monitoring company allowed hackers to gain access to the sensitive financial data of nearly 146,000,000 Americans. How? The person simply failed to apply security patches to an already-known vulnerability on a server.

Likewise, almost all apps downloaded and installed on smart phones or tablets track varying amounts of data on the device. They often request access to the user’s phone records, microphone, camera, physical location, shopping habits, photos, videos and text messages. All this data is also sold.

“The biggest issue for the information being collected and sold to third parties, most of the time without your knowledge, is the more times the data is shared, the greater the opportunity it ends up in the wrong hands,” says Moore.

Digital Decluttering

According to WIRED magazine, the first step in cleaning up one’s digital footprint is to make a list of all online accounts. Look through old emails or bank account statements to help jog the memory. Users also can look in the settings of social media accounts such as Facebook, Twitter or YouTube to find long forgotten accounts that are linked to them. If possible, make note of the username, email and/or password tied to each account.

Once this list is complete, determine which accounts to keep and which ones to delete. What is the value of that frequent-flyer program account when all the miles have expired? How important is that blogging account if nothing has been posted in the last few years? 

One by one, sign into the accounts selected for deletion. Do a quick search of their website to find the information on how to delete the account. Given the option to deactivate or delete, always choose to delete. Deactivating an account will lock the user out of it, but the information may remain accessible to the company. If the account cannot be deleted, edit the information therein including changing the user name to something like ABC DEF and the address to 123 Main Street.

Next, users should survey all the apps on their smart phone or tablet. Again, make note of apps that are important and those that have languished, unused. According to the online privacy company, hackers take advantage of unpatched, vulnerable code to gain access private data on phones. Delete all unused and unimportant apps, especially the apps that are so old, they no longer receive updates. 

For all other apps, make sure to update them regularly. Read through the Terms and Conditions to fully understand what services the app is accessing on mobile devices. If something looks suspicious, investigate it further by contacting the app developer.

The results of digital housekeeping can help reduce one’s risk of identity theft or being the target of spammers. No action is going to provide 100 percent protection from cyber criminals, but by reducing digital rubble, one can tighten up security and live a safer, simpler digital life. “With proper usage, people can understand the ways to use technology to their benefit by being productive and intentional. Digital mindfulness helps people understand how to declutter unnecessary or harmful habits while using technology,” says Patel.

For more information about digital mindfulness and how to live a more balanced digital life, contact the Advising and Counseling Center at TCC Southeast online or at 817-515-3590