It's your data, dummy: Make every day Data Privacy Day

Even in these dark digital times, data privacy matters. These five basic rules can help keep you safer in the murky online world

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Use a firewall. It pains me to list this item, but I have no choice. At a recent press party, an old Microsoft acquaintance (who shall remain nameless) bragged that the state of Windows 7 security was such that he'd stopped using a hardware firewall and ran his PC directly off his cable modem. I stood blinking for a bit, not knowing what to do in the face of such raw and blinding moronic energy. Then my mind went blank, and when I woke up, I was in handcuffs with skin under my fingernails as the sound of his muffled screams dribbled out from a nearby ambulance.

Home router/firewalls should be mandatory -- like a gentle slap upside the head for Tom Perkins. They're customizable, often have advanced features like antiphishing or email scanning, and make splitting your Internet connection among home devices easier. How many benefits do you need before plunking down a whopping $45? I can't imagine that many of you reading this aren't using one, but for those few mollusks who aren't -- well, do. It's a non-optional best practice, regardless of Windows 7's security status, and frankly that sounds about as likely as me commuting to work tomorrow in a car made of bacon and marshmallows.

Change your damn password every once in a while. This covers a lot of ground. First, check to see if you're using one of the 25 worst passwords, like "123456," "admin," or (ye gods) "password." If you are, step into your garage and smash yourself in the face with a roofing hammer. If you're in IT and know better but let yourself get bullied into it by your spouse or kids, smash yourself in the family jewels, too. Maybe now you'll grow a new pair.

Then check to see how long it's been since you last changed a password on anything important, like your bank account ... or your email account ... or your cloud account. I know you'll have to tear yourself away from the latest C-list-celebrity-laden reality TV phenom, but it can pay dividends when a member of Nigeria's royal family tries to snake your mortgage money. If you have trouble remembering new passwords, stop hitting yourself with roofing hammers and invest in an encrypted password file. Even the roofing hammer-challenged can remember one password (right?).

Maybe don't trust everything to the cloud. A friend of mine (yes, I have some) recently yodeled at me with glee when he bought 100GB of online cloud storage. "Now I can keep all those long-term things there, like my photos and financials -- you know, the stuff I don't want to lose because now it's safe online even if my PC crashes." I wanted to tase him, but instead I tried to gently impart some common sense sans roofing hammer.

Nothing online is safe. It's that simple. If it's online, sooner or later some evil, scab-encrusted, boil-infested troll subsisting on a steady diet of beagle puppies is going to come within stealing range. It's inevitable and unavoidable, like death, taxes, or my propensity for long-winded sentences. If it's personal, financial, or critical and you want to keep it 100 percent safe, then take it off the Web, which is preceded by "worldwide" for a reason. Drop $100 on a couple of USB hard disks and a fireproof lockbox or a safety deposit box. Now your stuff is safe. Yes, in case you're wondering, the Cringely tax files are on a WD My Book in my wall safe. I'd use a safety deposit box if I could, but I'm usually too drunk to drive.

We blame so many others for our data disaster misfortunes, but in honor of Data Privacy Day, we need to take a hard look inward and accept that the root cause of most byte exposure isn't just Neiman Marcus' no doubt cement-shoed, living-with-the-fishes security chief, it's us. Let's take 20 minutes tomorrow away from Angry Birds or incessant Facebook updating, and do a little cyber self-protection. Maybe it'll help, maybe it won't, but it sure can't hurt.

This article, "It's your data, dummy: Make every day Data Privacy Day," was originally published at Follow the crazy twists and turns of the tech industry with Robert X. Cringely's Notes from the Field blog, follow Cringely on Twitter, and subscribe to Cringely's Notes from the Underground newsletter.

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