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How can you protect your personal data online?

Host Angie Miles is wearing a red jacket and interviewing an expert on the left of a split screen image. On the right, Irene Leech is wearing a red blouse and a necklace with a large silver pendant.
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VPM News Focal Point
Irene Leech has spent her career advocating for consumers and protecting Virginian’s personal privacy. She is the president of the Virginia Citizens Consumer Council and a professor at Virginia Tech professor.

About 81% of Americans believe the risks of companies collecting their data outweigh the benefits, according to Pew Research Center. What is being done in the U.S. and in Virginia to safeguard your personal information, and what can you do to protect your data? Consumer advocate and Virginia Tech professor Irene Leech has recommendations.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

ANGIE MILES: Virginians are getting more control over their personal data. The state is one of the first in the country to put limits on the type of information a company can collect and store about you. But some say this new law puts the burden on consumers to protect themselves. Virginia Tech professor and advocate Irene Leech is joining us to explain how to optimize your privacy and opt out of data collection. Thanks for being with us, Professor Leech.

IRENE LEECH: Delighted to be here. Consumers really need to know about this.

ANGIE MILES: You have been an advocate for quite a while campaigning for protections, like the ones espoused in this law. Why is there such a need? And why do you think it's taken such a long time to get rules in place?

IRENE LEECH: Data is being collected every day in every function that we're involved in. And so far, the United States has failed to put reasonable guardrails up to protect and make sure that consumers do own our own data and that we're not taking advantage of. Other countries, notably the United Kingdom and China have got protections that really do protect their consumers. But the U.S. has operated under the idea that if we put no limits on it and trusted the businesses to do the right thing, that we'd have the most creative opportunities coming to us and get the most benefit.

ANGIE MILES: There have been a lot of rave reviews for Virginia in passing this law. I know that you've been a critic of it, but before the criticism, what is good actually about the way the law stands today?

IRENE LEECH: Well, it does give us a way to ask companies not to target us. It gives us a way to ask to see the information that is being collected on us, and in some cases delete particularly inaccurate information. And it does stop pass... some passage of data to third parties and some protection for sensitive data. And the fact that we can ask to not get targeted ads based on tracking us. Those are good things.

ANGIE MILES: Okay, all pluses. But what's wrong with the law as it's written?

IRENE LEECH: Well, the biggest problem is that the onus is completely on consumers. And we are required to go to each entity with which we do business, follow the procedures that they have put in place, there are no standards, and work with them to get what we want. And if you think about all of the different companies that each of us interacts with every day, that's a lot. And then you think about going to a website and finding the information. And then reading the information, figuring out what you really need to do. Many times, it's buried in those contracts that most people gave up reading long ago, because they're not encouraging. I mean, they're, they're written in legal terms, and you can't change them. And so most people have reached the point where they say, well, it doesn't matter. The only way I'm gonna get access is if I say "yes," so here we go.

ANGIE MILES: People just take the most direct path to get to what they're looking for and don't take the time to read the privacy statement. That was actually what I want to ask you about next. The law does require some changes to privacy statements. But I mean, will it be easy enough for companies to just maneuver around that and razzle dazzle and still get that's your concern it sounds like?

IRENE LEECH: That's my concern, and, and also the fact that each one of them can design their own. And so there aren't even standard pieces of language or processes that we can anticipate because they each get to design the system. We can, if we disagree with them, we have redress, but guess who design and control the system, the companies do.

ANGIE MILES: I wonder, though, if the fact of the law will raise awareness to the point where people maybe begin to feel like, hey, I do have some rights, I can have some rights. And maybe then they'll take more proactive steps to protect themselves. I want to ask you in that regard, because you, fortunately for us, know quite a bit about protecting privacy. What are some things, apart from this law, that people can do if they don't want their personal information mined, sold, shared?

IRENE LEECH: Well, the biggest thing is for us to take whatever provisions a company provides, for us to say, "don't track." And I think we still need to seriously consider with what rights we're giving away, because a lot of times they ask for more than they really need for... And consumers need to start saying, "No, I'm not going to use some things." So that possibly they'll put some more protections in place, if they're losing enough sales, or free uses that count for them, then maybe they'll eventually do something.

ANGIE MILES: If we could speak directly to the settings on our devices. I know Apple came out. Apple came out a few weeks ago with a humorous video meant to show people how to go into their settings and turn off tracking, turn off targeting, turn off various, various options. And then we've heard talk about putting tape over your camera on your laptop. Things that about... as you mentioned, using specific browsers, what are some of those concrete things that people can do, even if the companies themselves are still holding a lot of power in what they can collect?

IRENE LEECH: Well, definitely, the companies like Apple, an apple, by the way, has dropped out of the industry group that is pushing for the legislation that's going forward, because it isn't real protection, and Apple is, I think, really showing some leadership there. And the fact that they put that video out is wonderful. So, we need to have trusted sources. But looking to see what things we can do. It's, it's possible that taping over the camera, when you aren't needing the camera, could make a difference. Being sure that you know what all the controls on your devices are, and how to turn them on and off. If we were a little less free with providing the information, particularly sensitive information about gender and age and income and that kind of thing. If we question that more often, I think that could make a difference.

ANGIE MILES: So, people really should guard against oversharing and not get lulled into a false sense of trust with the entire internet, right?

IRENE LEECH: Oh, yeah.


IRENE LEECH: Well, and there are folks out there who get you to fill out surveys, and even the things on social media where you know, you can take the little quiz, and it's just for fun, who knows where that information is going and who's going to get it.


IRENE LEECH: And so, thinking twice about some of those things is something that could really make a difference.

ANGIE MILES: I think we should have learned that lesson with Cambridge Analytica with those little quizzes that pop up. Are there specific apps that you think are more dangerous that people need to stay away from, or at least be more vigilant about when they use?

IRENE LEECH: I think that social media in particular. And of course, there's been a lot in the media about Tick Tock. But there are questions, I think, around that. And, so I would, I would be cautious about that. There are various things that come out and new and nobody really knows much about and so instead of jumping in and trying and giving information to something that you know nothing about the company that's behind it, or any of its track record, you know, maybe let some other people be the ones to be the first ones on and check it out later, would be a thing to do.

ANGIE MILES: Okay, so don't overshare. Protect your data in ways that you can protect your data. Let other people be the guinea pigs, if something new comes out and vet everything as much as possible. That's sounds like the best that we can do at this point. Privacy information for the real world and for the virtual world as well. Thank you so much for joining us and providing this helpful information. Professor Irene leach from Virginia Tech. Thank you.


Angie Miles, Host/Producer, anchors and hosts VPM News Focal Point and special broadcasts.
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