Protect Yourself By “Spring Cleaning” Your Data

May 22 | 2018

Spring has sprung and it’s an optimal time to declutter your life. You know the drill — start at the top of each room, and work down; clear out all of the clutter and reorganize; give floors, windows and baseboards a good scrubbing; polish up furniture and fixtures to make them shine; and maybe even re-energize the space with a fresh coat of paint. This is the very same approach that we should use to “Spring Clean” the data in our data warehouses.

Besides the promise of order and ease in finding what you need, cleaning up your data offers unique protection from the growing lists of new cyber threats. Spring cleaning your data isn’t nearly as painful as hosing off the lawn furniture or dusting the baseboards. There are easy ways to make a big impact.

Most people have old email accounts floating around, forgotten thumb drives in a drawer, and years-worth of old documents in a downloads folder. All that stuff is a liability. Saving data that you want or that will someday come in handy is sort of the whole point of the digital revolution, but holding on to accounts and files that you don’t actually want anymore needlessly exposes you to all sorts of risks. Your devices can be lost or stolen (or hacked) and big companies can suffer data breaches that incidentally expose your information. So the less there is out there, the better off you are.

Here’s some tips on how to clean that clutter before it comes back to haunt you. Set aside a few minutes and tackle a few tasks every day this month.

Out with the Old

Rid your drawers, boxes, and cabinets of old, outdates, never-to-be-used-again devices, USB drives and CDs/DVDs. As we see on a daily basis, these physical storage methods don’t last forever. Data saved on these mediums should be backed up in a way (or ways) that will last the test of time. If you do decide to throw out devices, ensure you’ve wiped the data clean instead of just deleting it. Don’t stop with ridding yourself of old digital remnants that are physical. Old email and unused social media accounts are invitations for hackers and cyber criminals. Follow the steps needed to delete or at least deactivate these accounts instead of allowing them to lie dormant.

Digital Dumping Ground

Sort through your desktop and clean out your documents folder. Eliminating old PDFs of credit card statements or medical forms that you no longer need will go a long way toward keeping you safer. And it’s a good opportunity to make a plan for sensitive documents that you do want to hold on to. You might back them up to a cloud service or a password-protected external hard drive and then take them off the devices you use every day that could be lost or stolen.

The point isn’t to part with data that is personally meaningful or useful. The goal is to pare down what you have so if your data is ever compromised hackers aren’t getting copies of your friend’s son’s leg x-rays—complete with name, birthday, and social security number—for no reason.

Cancel Those Accounts

Look for apps you don’t use anymore and shut them down. Are your photos backing up onto four different services for some reason? Clean that up. Do you still have an account with a messaging app you used once two years ago until your friends clued you in to the fact that it wasn’t cool anymore? Why is that calorie counting app still on your phone from 2014? Cancel and delete. That type of exposure is an unnecessary risk.

Before you delete the software, clean out and close your account with the company so it retains the smallest amount of data possible about you. Closing an account doesn’t necessarily mean that a company deletes all your data or eliminates the basic things it knows about you—data handling procedures should be laid out in an app’s terms of service—but it keeps the account from staying active and potentially continuing to collect data. For example, a fitness app that you haven’t thought about in months could be tracking your steps, heart rate, or even your whereabouts without you realizing. And if an account is deactivated, the company that manages it might still keep the data from it on record, but criminals won’t be able to figure out the credentials for the account, log in, and, say, use a credit card on file to go on a shopping spree.

Clean and Update your Devices

Clear out any dust that has accumulated around desktops and larger machines. Running faster and harder than ever, today’s computers can overheat easily, which can result in massive data loss. A vacuum rather than compressed air is recommended to pull dirt and dust out of the machine rather than risk pushing it further into the vent system. After you’ve cleaned the outside, focus on the inside of your device. Run software updates and full system scans. You should be backing up data on a regular basis but if you haven’t implemented a backup plan, now’s the time to start!

Your return on the investment of a few hours decluttering your digital life will be felt almost immediately. No one particularly enjoys spring cleaning but it’s an excellent time to renew and realign your strategies with goals. Incorporate these best practices into your everyday habits and you’ll find the tasks to stay organized will get easier with time. In addition to offering you peace of mind and ease of use, a tidy digital existence is among the best defenses available to cyber threats.

As is the case with spring cleaning of our homes, this process takes a little extra effort and some focused time. When complete though, the results will be very rewarding.

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