How Can We Protect Ourselves In The Age Of High-Profile Data Breaches?

When Equifax revealed weeks ago that its servers were hacked, it exposed hundreds of millions of adult Americans (possibly Canadians and British too) to identity theft. It also illustrated how a broken credit system can make victims of all of us.

There’s a disconnect between how society views people’s identities and protects them (or not) and how individuals think about them. After all, is anything more sacred than our private identities? Our identities are comprised of our health, family history, psychology, values, work lives, personal lives, homes, spirituality, sexuality, and finances. Hard to define, we are a collection of inherited traits and behaviors paired with individual experiences.

Every day we give up our complex identities and trade them for identifiers. We reduce our humanity to numbers: social security numbers, driver’s license numbers, passport numbers, credit scores, employer ids and the list goes on… We trade our identities in exchange for services we need to operate in the world. We need social security to qualify for social services, a driver’s license to operate a vehicle, a passport to travel, a credit score to buy a house and car, and an employer ID for health insurance.

Despite the fact that these numbers represent our identity; agencies assign them to us so we lose control from day one. Today, institutions also have access to much of our identifying information to verify that we are who we say we are and reduce their own liability. Now many agencies ask for and require us to provide multiple proofs of identity to get services. Institutions, including those we don’t even know we use (like Equifax!), have become holding companies for our identities. Any number of future hacks or breaches leave us vulnerable to identity theft. The system breaks down when we create many points of failure for protecting our identities.

Now we give up control of our identities from the get-go, yet carry individual liability for our identities. But what if we assigned our identifiers and only gave relevant agencies, access to the one necessary for the service rendered? What if the only agency that could access your social security number was the Social Security Administration and you? What if your driver’s license number was only between you and the Department of Motor Vehicles? Identity protection would be much stronger.

This is the privacy conundrum of modern day. What can we do to reduce our individual exposure to identity theft and privacy exposure?

Think about the privacy issues in a new light and urge your representatives to propose solutions. The status quo isn’t the answer. Your personal identity belongs to you, no one else.
Don’t willingly give out personally identifying information when it’s not necessary. Ask why before you share personal information (like your social security number, home or email address) and opt-out of providing it if you can.
Change your mindset and take back your privacy. The Equifax breach and others underscore that we all need to take control of our privacy and safety. No one else will do it for you. A corporate apology from the retiring executives at Equifax won’t bring back your personal security.
Technology has brought convenience to the services necessary to lead our lives, but we all need to be vigilant in making sure that the systems we use day-to-day evolve accordingly to protect us and our privacy.


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