With the digital world now deeply rooted in the fabric of society, we are increasingly living double lives. There is our immediate, physical existence – and there is our digital identity. Most people are more familiar with the first. But as our information and behavior go digital, a more complete picture of who we are emerges.
In a nutshell, your digital identity encompasses all the information that exists about you in digital form. This includes your personally identifiable information as well as your online behavior and any authentication factors you use to verify your identity when accessing online services.
In this article, we’ll be covering the following topics:
- What are the Components of a Digital Identity?
- Why is Your Digital Identity Important?
- The Risks to Digital Identities: Attack Vectors
- How to Protect Your Digital Identity
What Are the Components of a Digital Identity?
Broadly speaking, a digital identity can be split into two categories: digital attributes and digital activities.
Digital attributes are data points about you that are often used for administrative reasons and include:
- Date of birth
- Bank details
- Email addresses
- Social Security number (SSN)
- Driver’s license
- Medical history
- ID numbers
- Passport details
Digital activities provide a fuller picture of your preferences and personality and are often used by companies for targeted marketing or to help improve user experience. They include:
- Search queries
- Social media activity: likes, shares, comments, posts
- Purchase history
- Cell phone usage
- App downloads
- Browsing history
Why is Your Digital Identity Important?
In many ways, a digital identity can help improve your life by allowing you to enjoy the convenience and benefits of a connected world. When you save your location and payment information online, for instance, you’re able to seamlessly shop online and get things delivered to your home with minimal effort.
When you watch shows or listen to music on streaming platforms, it allows algorithms to learn your preferences so they can give you relevant recommendations. When you share your thoughts and life events on social media, it allows you to connect with family and friends. The list goes on and on. But the main idea is this: sharing the right information with the right people can make your life easier.
However, while the benefits of the internet are never-ending, it’s also important to understand the risks involved so you can help avoid exposing your sensitive information to untrusted environments. When it comes to information such as your payment details and SSN, it helps to understand the vulnerabilities of a digital identity to minimize the likelihood that it gets compromised by cybercriminals and identity thieves.
The Risks to Digital Identities: Attack Vectors
An attack vector is essentially an access point allowing hackers to steal elements of your digital identity. The following vectors represent some of the most common ways a criminal could gain access to your accounts, also known as account takeover:
This involves manipulating individuals into sharing confidential information that can be used for fraudulent purposes. A common example is phishing. Phishing is a type of social engineering attack whereby hackers send fictitious emails or other communication, from what appears to be a trusted company, to induce victims to reveal personal information such as passwords, usernames or payment details.
Unsecured websites are unable to provide users with a secure connection, leaving any information sent and received through its pages vulnerable to theft or modification by hackers. If a “Not Secure” warning appears on your browser when you visit a website, it is not necessarily affected by malware. However, its security credentials are probably not where they need to be.
Public WiFi networks
Hackers love public Wi-Fi networks as they are often unsecured and unencrypted. Some hackers even set up rogue hotspots with the sole intention of luring unsuspecting device users and stealing their valuable data.
A data breach is any unauthorized access to a company’s data that results in the exposure of sensitive information to an untrusted environment. This is a big one. In the last 15 years, there have been a total of 1.7 billion records exposed in data breaches leaving more than half of the U.S. population vulnerable to identity theft. Cybercriminal organizations are usually financially motivated, targeting valuable intellectual property or customer data that can be resold in bulk on the dark web.
Weak or Limited Number of Passwords
There is a reason why using passwords such as “password1” or “1234” are inadvisable: they are very easy to guess. Furthermore, using the same password across a multitude of sites means a hacker need only steal data from one site to gain access to a whole host of your other user accounts.
Credential stuffing involves the use of stolen account credentials such as email addresses, usernames and corresponding passwords to gain access to user accounts via automated login requests directed against a web application. It is an automated process that does not involve guesswork, making it a particularly malicious and effective form of attack.
Exploitation of Self-Service features
Hackers with enough information about a person can gain access to his or her online user accounts by exploiting the self-service features on websites such as the ‘forgotten password’ button. This is particularly true for those sites that don’t require two-factor authentication.
Malware is any type of software or program designed to harm a computer, steal data or hold victims to ransom such as a computer virus, Trojan horse, ransomware, spyware, wiper, worm or adware.
How to Protect Your Digital Identity
Although the threats described above are serious and very real, there are a number of things you can do to browse the web safely and protect your digital identity:
Using strong passwords ensures you have a strong first line of defense for your sensitive information. While it may seem stressful having to come up with complicated passwords for every online account you have, you can make this easier by using a password manager that saves them and creates them for you.
Use a Virtual Private Network (VPN)
VPNs are encrypted connections that link your device to a remote server. They have traditionally been used by businesses to give remote employees secure access to their company networks. However, you can use them as well to conceal your location and data. This is a great solution when you want to use the web securely without having to worry about relying on unencrypted networks, such as public Wi-Fi.
Anti-malware software is another valuable line of defense that is designed to prevent, detect, and remove programs that aim to access your computer system and steal your data. There are many types of malware and they are always evolving, so make sure you have the latest version of anti-malware software installed to minimize the likelihood of a data breach to your own devices.
Awareness of Phishing Scams
Getting clued up about phishing scams is the best way to help keep your data safe. Cybercriminals and identity thieves are always exploiting public concern to create scams that feel real. Never reply directly to an email asking for sensitive information such as your bank details. Also, never click on links from sources you do not trust.
Credit monitoring involves using technology to keep close track of your credit report and credit activity. Credit monitors can send alerts when suspicious changes or possible fraudulent activity is detected, making it easy for users to look after their financial information.
Dark web monitoring
Dark web monitoring, also known as internet or cyber monitoring, helps aid in identity theft prevention by scanning the dark web for information related to your identity. According to a recent study on various market places on the dark web, sensitive information such as your SSN and W-2 can be bought for prices ranging from $0.19 to $62. When you know whether your information has been exposed, it allows you to take precautionary measures that can help save you from the headache of remediating fraud.
As our digital identities continue to become the foundation of our finances and digital resources, it’s important that we practice safe online habits to help protect our information from landing in the wrong hands. Fortunately, there are plenty of tools and habits we can implement to help make the internet a safer place.