If information is power, then how powerful is your information?

The power behind the throne; the spymaster; the Chief Adviser to the Prime Minister.

These seem like classic tropes from a tense TV series or thrilling blockbuster, with spies, secret agents and mysterious cloaked figures working in darkness. In these cases, information is fiercely protected and agents work to uncover hidden secrets over months or even years, potentially leading to huge changes in a world’s political or social landscape.

This can make for some excellent TV, but these sorts of things just don’t happen in the real world, do they?

Perhaps the reason they don’t, is because information is no longer hidden away in a locked chest, guarded night and day. Instead, our information is uploaded to the internet, shared, and harvested by those who would use it to their advantage. Hopefully this doesn’t sound too much like a doomsday speech, but it is the reality of living in the information age.

We aren’t suggesting that clients swap their touch-screen tablets for a stone tablet and chisel, but it is important to make sure that our information, particularly sensitive information, is kept secure and not given away carelessly.

Facebook – the poisoned chalice

With almost 2.9 billion monthly active users, it’s safe to say that most people you know will have a Facebook account. Even if they don’t have an account, it’s highly likely they will have heard of the social network.

With its size and reach, Facebook can allow people to keep in contact with friends of family all over the world, in a way that has never before been possible. I’m friends with some relatives who I’m fairly sure I’ve never actually met and are sailing around the world with their 1, 2, now 3 children – I’ve definitely never actually met the children, but I know their names and how old they are and I could probably look back and check their birthdays, based on the posts announcing they had been born.

This sharing of information between friends and family is undeniably a fantastic resource, but all the benefits of the internet (and social media in particular), come at a price.

We know that Facebook is one of the greatest sources of information to find out about a person, anywhere in the world. Even if they say they don’t sell your data, or they might have done ‘accidentally’ in the past, other groups can use the information they collect to influence the advertising you see, the news that you read and the political parties you vote for.

An innocuous post asking you to create a superhero name based on your favourite food and colour, while amusing, has just broadcast two common security question answers to the world. The person who created the post may not be trying to use your data, but others can, and will, use it for their own advantage, and your detriment.

Damage to your finances is a common result of a malicious actor or data breach, but there are lots of other ways your information can be used against you.

If you haven’t seen it, The Great Hack is a documentary on Netflix which explains how the information on Facebook was likely used to influence the 2016 US Presidential campaigns and elections.

No longer is it just an individual losing access to their emails, or being defrauded; information is now being weaponised and used to influence democratic processes in stable, first world countries, which are able to shape and influence the lives of millions, or even billions of people.

What can I do?

Personal Security – So long as you are mindful of the information you are sharing and you have good personal security procedures for your data, you are doing a good job. Maintaining and updating passwords is a key part of keeping your online accounts safe and having some form of backup is also sensible.

A quick test you can do, is to check if your email or phone number has been exposed in a data breach https://haveibeenpwned.com/. If you find that some of your data has been  leaked, you know that you should be reviewing your accounts to make sure they are secure.

Check your sources – Well-respected and verified sources of news are the simplest way of keeping away from misinformation and half-truths. If you see a click-bait headline from a website you’ve never heard of, consider how accurate that journalism is likely to be and whether they are in the business of news, or simply making a profit.

Have a watching mind – We all like to think that we aren’t influenced by advertising, but the truth is that lots of it does work. If you’re liking the look of something that’s been brought to your attention, just take a moment before you click the ‘buy’ button. If you hadn’t thought about buying 5 minutes ago, it can wait another 5, 10, 15 minutes, or even until the next day. Give yourself the time to make an informed decision to make sure that you actually do want this shiny new thing.

Speak to your financial planner – A good financial planner should be someone you can trust and talk to about all sorts of matters, not just how well your pension has been doing over the last year. If you’re ever in doubt about something, or if you need some support, please get in touch and we will be more than happy to help.

Jamie Shuck | jamie@sussexretirement.co.uk

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