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Personal safety in the digital world

Data is now a precious commodity in the 21st century and is now considered to be a very precious asset meaning digital safety has become increasingly important.

We are well into the age of the digital revolution that has dramatically reshaped our lives, perhaps in the same way the industrial revolution had dramatically altered the lives of our ancestors. Data is a precious commodity in the 21st century and is now considered to be a very precious (often personal) asset which has to be vigorously protected. Digital safety has therefore become increasingly important

For example, perhaps one or two generations ago, bank robberies were relatively common events with criminals using offensive and deadly weapons such as guns in a violent manner, so they could get their hands on cash. Due to enhanced security, partially powered by advanced digital technologies, this has fortunately become less common. Unfortunately, digital fraud has become much easier, less effort and more lucrative (and physically safer) for criminals and has generally replaced bank robberies as an important and illegal source of money.

Without doubt, modern digital technologies have helped to enhance personal security. Think of the benefits of having a smartphone and its incredible communication and computer-like capabilities which only a few years ago would have existed only within the realm of a science fiction novel. We can now hail a taxi often within minutes to our exact location, transfer the journey fee (and a tip) electronically without using cash. We can also track ourselves or relatives and friends and they can track us for safety.

Yet the same technology can allow an unwelcome stalker to track an individual without the victim knowing and this can lead to severe consequences. These issues have highlighted the importance of personal safety in a digital world as well as securing the safety of important objects such as your house. Digital technologies offer both a threat and an opportunity and they are indeed a double-edged sword, so let’s look at this topic in more detail.

Location services

It is easier to track someone nowadays, but you need their permission and full consent, to avoid the risk of stalking, which is a very serious issue. Assuming everyone involved agrees and consents to sharing their location then this can be a high value safety and convenience feature for all parties concerned. For example, on my iPhone, I have the fabulous Find My app which can locate people, devices and items. There is also the excellent Life360 app which can also help locate people and works across both the Apple and Android operating systems.

If you have and use the commonly used communication app, WhatsApp then there is an excellent built in and accurate location tool. In case you don’t know about it, for an iPhone from the chat box of a specific person, click the plus sign to the left and click location. Choose a live location which is time limited on a selection box or share current location. Whilst for those on Android, follow these simple instructions.

Another take on sharing location comes from the excellent app what3words which everyone should have on their smartphone. I have also covered this topic in a previous blog.  Essentially this app is far more accurate than a simple postal address or a postal code and this app divides the world into blocks of 3 metre squares.

Each square is identified by a unique sequence of three English words and there are 57 trillion addresses needed for the planet! Address precision using what3words allows car breakdowns or an ill patient to be accurately located. From personal experience, last year I parked my car in a huge car park located in a field. I kept the what3words address of the car so I could easily navigate back. The 02 Arena even has a page on their website of what3words descriptions of entrances and facilities.

From a personal viewpoint if you (or your family) ever need to contact emergency services having the what3words app up and running on your smartphone and ready for action can be a lifesaver. Better to have it ready than downloading it in an emergency, especially if there is a poor or no mobile or Wi-Fi phone signal.

Another impressive addition to the location services space are small tags that can attach to a keyring, object or person such as Tile or AirTags with the latter only working with Apple products. These small products can be attached to key rings, concealed in cars or even carried by people and I am a great user of AirTags especially for my luggage when flying.

Stalking, location services and scamming

Location services are also an important source of unwanted stalking which can cause great personal distress. Leicestershire police have a good webpage looking at this very issue  and there is some excellent advice. Another excellent source of support is Veritas Justice as well as Police Scotland.

This is a hugely important issue that could easily negate the undoubted benefits of a location service but if precautions are taken then risks can be reduced though not always eliminated.

In addition to personal security being at risk, don’t forget that that cybersecurity and the risk of being scammed is real and substantial. In additional to any financial loss from being scammed, it is often underestimated how stressful and traumatic it is when you are the victim of a  scam. It is also important to protect your email address. 

Home apps and personal safety

Modern security digital methods have extended to the home and the security of some objects like a car or keys or a wallet/purse. For example, video doorbells have become commonly used and are useful to give instructions to delivery drivers when you are not at home. Even when you are at home and don’t want to answer the door, you can speak two way to the visitor via audio and video. I have written about this subject previously and I must say that for home security having motion detection and video recording ability from your front door does make an excellent contribution.

Other high tech but accessible home or business security options are Smart Plugs that are Wi-Fi enabled. They can be switched on and off remotely manually and set to switching on and off at predetermined times, all via an app. Although you can attach many electrical items to a Smart Plug, attaching lamps throughout the house to switch on and off at specific times can be useful for your home security.

There are also venetian blinds that work on a similar principle that can open and close at specific times via an app and may enhance the security of your home.

It is important to remember that these technologies are all powered by Wi-Fi. This is a brilliant technology which underpins many of our current digital lives but it can be neutralised by Wi-Fi Jammers. If a sophisticated criminal uses a Wi-Fi jammer (usually illegal to use in the UK), then all the Wi-Fi enabled devices are potentially disabled! In part this can be overcome by using wired ethernet connections to these devices.

Other ways of enhancing your digital and personal security

It is a game of cat and mouse. The minute that we deploy new technologies to protect us, our family or friends or important valuables then along comes criminals armed with successful countermeasures. So, it is important to be on top of what is an ever-changing landscape and you can always improve your security defences. For example, instead of using physical credit cards, you can have your credit cards on your smartwatch (I have discussed this in a previous blog) or smart phone and their use is protected by biometrics such as facial recognition or a PIN code. You can also have single use credit cards, which can be useful in a transaction with a website that you are an unfamiliar with and never used before.

If browsing with a device, you might to increase your security using a Virtual Private Network (VPN) and this was also covered in a previous blog,  QR codes are very popular but always be wary of following the path they have suggested because it may take you to rogue resources.

Your SIM card on your smartphone could be a potential weak link which could allow criminals access to vital assets such as bank accounts and other assets which could endanger your personal safety. Ideally your SIM card should be locked.

There is so much you can do and in fact it may seem to be overwhelming but if you take it slowly but surely and understand broad principles then digital security and personal safety can both be enhanced. There are some really good articles around which are worth a read.

You don’t have to do everything at once but be self-aware of your digital and personal security situation as the two are closely linked and if there are chinks in your defences; then this could offer a path for criminals to enter and severely disrupt your (or friends and family’s) way of life. Every so often look at your digital personal security, ask advice and read widely and obtain hints and tips. It could save you a lot of grief.

Dr Harry Brown is medical editor of Health Today and a retired GP, Leeds




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