What Is Personal Data?

We’re all hearing a lot about how important it is to protect our personal data. But just what is personal data? This article comes from my Wiley/Sybex Linux Security Fundamentals book – which happens to be about much more than just Linux.

Your personal data is any information that relates to your health, employment, banking activities, close relationships, and interactions with government agencies. In most cases, you should have the legal right to expect that such information remains inaccessible to anyone without your permission.

But “personal data” could also be anything that you contributed with the reasonable expectation that it would remain private. That could include exchanges of emails and messages or recordings and transcripts of phone conversations. It should also include data—like your browser search history—saved to the storage devices used by your compute devices.

Governments, citing national interest concerns, will reserve the right for their security and enforcement agencies to forcibly access your personal data where legally required. Of course, different governments will set the circumstances defining “legally required” according to their own standards. When you disagree, some jurisdictions permit legal appeal.

Where Might My Personal Data Be Hanging Out?

The short answer to that question is “Probably a whole lot of places you wouldn’t approve.” The long answer will begin with something like “I can tell you, but expect to become and remain deeply stressed and anxious.” In other words, it won’t be pretty. But since you asked, here are some things to consider.

Browsing Histories

The digital history of the sites you’ve visited on your browser can take more than one form. Your browser can maintain its own log of the URLs of all the pages you’ve opened. Your browser’s cache will hold some of the actual page elements (like graphic images) and state information from those websites. Online services like Google will have their own records of your history, both as part of the way they integrate your various online activities and through the functionality of website usage analyzers that might be installed in the code of the sites you visit.

Some of that data will be anonymized, making it impossible to associate with any one user, and some is, by design, traceable. A third category is meant to be anonymized but can, in practice, be decoded by third parties and traced back to you. Given the right (or wrong) circumstances, any of that data can be acquired by criminals and used against your interests.

E-commerce and Social Media Account Data

Everything you’ve ever done on an online platform—every comment you’ve posted, every password you’ve entered, every transaction you’ve made—is written to databases and, at some point, used for purposes you didn’t anticipate. Even if there was room for doubt in the past, we now know with absolute certainty that companies in possession of massive data stores will always seek ways to use them to make money. In many cases, there’s absolutely nothing negative or illegal about that. As an example, it can’t be denied that Google has leveraged much of its data to provide us with mostly free services that greatly improve our lives and productivity.

But there are also concerning aspects to the ways our data is used. Besides the possibility that your social media or online service provider might one day go “dark side” and abuse their access to your data, many of them—perhaps most infamously, Facebook—have sold identifiable user data to external companies.

An even more common scenario has been the outright theft of private user data from insufficiently protected servers. This is something that’s already happened to countless companies over the past few years. Either way, there’s little you can do to even track, much less control, the exciting adventures your private data may be enjoying—and what other exotic destinations it might reach one, five, or ten years down the road.

Government Databases

National and regional government agencies also control vast stores of data covering many levels of their citizens’ behavior. We would certainly hope that such agencies would respect their own laws governing the use of personal data, but you can never be sure that government-held data will never be stolen—or shared with foreign agencies that aren’t bound by the same standards. It also isn’t rare for rogue government agencies or individual employees to abuse their obligations to you and your data.

Public Archives

The internet never forgets. Consider that website you quickly threw together a decade ago as an expression of your undying loyalty to your favorite movie called…wait, what was its name again? A year later, when you realized how silly it all looked, you deleted the whole
thing. Nothing to be embarrassed about now, right? Except that there’s a good chance your site content is currently being stored and publicly displayed by the Internet Archive on its Wayback Machine. It’s also not uncommon for online profiles you’ve created on social networking sites like Facebook or LinkedIn to survive in one form or another long after deletion.

The Dark Web

As we’ll learn in Chapter 6, “Encrypting Your Moving Data,” information can be transferred securely and anonymously through the use of a particular class of encrypted connections known as a virtual private network (VPN). VPNs are tools for communicating across public, insecure networks without disclosing your identifying information. That’s a powerful security tool. But the same features that make VPNs secure also give them so much value inside the foggy world of the internet’s criminal underground.

A popular way to describe places where you can engage in untraceable activities is using the phrase dark web. The dark web is made up of content that, as a rule, can’t be found using mainstream internet search engines and can be accessed only through tools using specially configured network settings.

The private or hidden networks where all this happens are collectively known as the darknet. The tools used to access this content include the Tor anonymity network that uses connections that are provided and maintained by thousands of participants. Tor users can often obscure their movement across the internet, making their operations effectively anonymous.

Like VPNs, the dark web is often used to hide criminal activity, but it’s also popular among groups of political dissidents seeking to avoid detection and journalists who communicate with whistleblowers. A great deal of the data that’s stolen from servers and private devices eventually finds its way to the dark web.

This article is an excerpt from my Wiley/Sybex Linux Security Fundamentals book. I’ve got plenty more tech goodness available through my books, courses, and articles.

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