Safeguarding Personal Information Against Online Surveillance

 |  News

The Internet has revolutionized our lives. It facilitates transactions and information transmission. With opportunities there are risks. In today’s Web-based world, it is critical to know contents of your “digital dossier” and take steps to minimize risks that various forms of online surveillance create for personal and financial security.

Respond Online to IRS Requests to Verify Identity

When the IRS receives a suspicious tax return with your name or Social Security number, it may send you an identity verification letter through the U.S. Postal Service. This is because the return has indications of identity theft. If you receive a letter with number “5071C” in the upper corner, you may call the toll-free number on the letter. Or you may opt to go online to the IRS’s identity verification website to verify your information more quickly and easily.

The website will ask a series of questions that only the real taxpayer can answer. Before going online, first collect your 2013 and 2014 tax returns (if available), including supporting documents, such as Forms W-2 and 1099 and Schedules A and C.

Once your identity is verified, confirm whether or not you filed the return in question. If not, the IRS will take steps to assist you. If the return is legitimate, it will take approximately six weeks to process it and issue any refunds.

Important Note: The IRS never calls or e-mails taxpayers to verify financial or personal information and only sends letters through regular mail. In addition, taxpayers should remember that is the official IRS website. Always look for a URL ending with “.gov” — not “.com,” “.org,” “.net” or nongovernmental URLs.


How Do You Feel About Government Surveillance Programs?

Most Americans think it is acceptable for the federal government to monitor phone and online communications of foreigners and U.S. leaders, according to a Pew Research survey released on March 16. Specifically, the survey revealed:

  • 82 percent approve of monitoring suspected terrorists;
  • 60 percent approve of monitoring U.S. and foreign leaders; and
  • 54 percent approve of monitoring communications from foreign citizens.

While the majority thinks it is acceptable for the government to monitor these groups, 57 percent of Americans believe it is unacceptable for the government to monitor U.S. citizens. However, about two-thirds support monitoring individuals who enter search engine terms such as “explosives” and “automatic weapons” or visit anti-American websites.

Risks Abound

Online surveillance ranges from mildly invasive to potentially life threatening. Even if personal information is not hacked, search engines and data brokers are monitoring your Internet searches, shopping habits, and public records online. Then, they sell your information to advertisers. For example, have you wondered why the pop-up ads you receive on Google or Facebook tend to reflect your latest searches or purchases?

On the more severe end of the risk spectrum, consider the recent online post by the extremist group known as the “Islamic State Hacking Division” that provided detailed personal information on 100 U.S. military personnel, including their names, branches of military service and ranks, home addresses and even photos. The post urged its “brothers in America” to kill these service men and women. Although the Islamic State claims to have hacked into a military database, the Pentagon believes that most of the information was simply obtained through public records, residential search sites, and social media.

Even the U.S. government trolls the Internet for personal information, as we learned from documents released by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden in 2013. Nine in 10 respondents to a recent Pew Research survey say that they heard at least a bit about the government surveillance programs that monitor phone and Internet use. Only 34 percent of those aware of the government programs have taken steps to guard their digital dossiers from unauthorized surveillance.

5 Simple Ways to Protect Yourself Online

You needn’t accept these risks as the new normal — or completely avoid using the Internet, smart device apps and social media. The Federal Trade Commission recommends these five simple ways to safeguard your personal and financial data from unauthorized tracking:

Be Alert to Impersonators. Do not give out personal information over the Internet unless you initiated the contact or know the person or company. If a company claims to have an account with you sends an e-mail asking for personal information, do not click on links in the message. Instead, type the company name into your Web browser, go to its site, and contact them through customer service. Better, call customer service listed on your account statement and ask the company if they sent the request.

Safely Dispose of Technology Equipment. Before you dispose of a computer, get rid of all the personal information it stores. Use a wipe utility program to overwrite the entire hard drive. Likewise, check your owner’s manual or the manufacturer’s website before throwing or giving away a mobile device. You want to make sure all of your personal information — including phone books, voicemails, Web search history, photos and passwords — is permanently erased.

Encrypt Your Data. Guard online transactions with encryption software that scrambles information you send over the Internet. A “lock” icon on the status bar of your Internet browser means your information is safe when it’s transmitted. Look for the lock before you send personal or financial information online.

Keep Passwords Private and Complex. Use strong passwords with your credit, bank and other accounts. Instead of using your mother’s maiden name or anniversary date, think of a special phrase and use the first letter of each word as your password. For example, “I want to see the Pacific Ocean” could become 1W2CtPo. Combine symbols, numbers, and upper and lower case letters. Use long passwords.

Limit Your Social Networking Footprint. If you post too much information about yourself and your family on social media sites, an identity thief can find information about your life and then use it to answer “challenge” questions on your accounts — or to access your money and personal information. For example, many people like to post pictures of their latest vacation adventures on Facebook. But doing so tells would-be thieves that no one is home. Consider limiting access to your networking page to a small group of people. Don’t post your full name, Social Security number, address, phone number or passwords on publicly accessible sites.

Also beware of search engine surveillance. Some popular sites — including Google, Bing and Yahoo — collect information about your searches and then sell them to interested third parties. This might even include health-related searches and private medical data, because the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) applies to only medical service providers, such as doctors, hospitals and insurance companies, not to other types of companies.

You can use a privacy tool to block tracking of browsing activity by search engines. Or you could select a search engine site that pledges never to collect personal information or data-mine your queries.

Ongoing Diligence Required

Internet security isn’t something you do once and forget about. The “Heartbleed” virus that was detected in April 2014 highlights the importance of ongoing diligence. This bug attacked a type of encryption software called Open SSL that is used by thousands of websites to secure data, including credit card information, passwords and user names. In the aftermath, consumers were advised to change their passwords and clear their Internet browser caches, histories and cookies. But realistically, these are smart practices for everyone to employ on a monthly basis.

Exactly how to clear your history depends on the browser you use but here are some instructions for a couple of popular browsers:

  • For current versions of Internet Explorer. Go to Tools (an icon with gears). Choose “Safety” and then “Delete Browsing History.” There you can check “Temporary Internet files, Cookies, History,” etc.
  • For current versions of Firefox. Click the Firefox button at the top of the window. Select “History,” then select “Clear Recent History.” This opens up a pop-up box that asks for a time range to clear. Select “Everything” and check “Browsing and Download History, Cookies and Cache.” Then, click “Clear Now.”


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