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Recent years have brought an alarming rise in data and privacy breaches, with everyone from social media companies to retailers and online brands falling victim to cyber-attacks. As our digital footprints and online presence continue to expand, security and privacy matter now more than ever. Brands that fail to prioritize their consumers will fall behind.

Today, we're going to explore the importance of online security and privacy, how we even got to such a place, and what brands can do going forward to stay ready.

Our Digital Lives Leave Us Exposed

Think about how much of your daily life has shifted online. We order dinner, hail a taxi, buy Christmas gifts, get and send mail, and so much more — all on our smartphones. Beyond that, countless other smart devices are constantly siphoning our data, too, from laptops to smart home assistants to wearable fitness trackers. Bottom line — we're plugged in 24/7.

All of this information is collected, stored, and analyzed by companies. Each device or account is yet another avenue for them to learn about user behavior and figure out how to better meet those needs. Furthermore, all that data is also vulnerable to hackers and cyber-attackers who want to scrape your SSN, bank information, personal details, or something even more dangerous.

One thing remains clear: Our digital lives have left us exposed. The same technologies that enable online shopping also put our privacy and security at risk. The worst part is that most consumers underestimate just how much of their data is actively collected and what kind of threat it could pose if left in the wrong hands.

How We Got Here

The current state of digital privacy and security didn't come about overnight. It's the slow and steady result of incremental progress made in technology, and the subsequent adoption of these tools by consumers. Couple that with companies' growing hunger for data, and it's no surprise that we've created such a hyper-digital environment.

Back in the early days of the internet, most people didn't even realize how much of their personal information was floating around out there. Further, most companies weren't even collecting this information, at least not like they are today. Then came the meteoric rise of the internet, then smartphones, then social media, and then the rest. This handed mountains of personal data over to Big Tech companies — almost willingly. The tradeoff for free and convenient services was constant surveillance and monitoring.

With each new advancement came even more ways to capture consumer data. Despite this, regulatory oversight related to online privacy remained lax. Companies relied on vague legalese in their terms of service that users never read in full. Websites leaned on cookies to attain access to user data. Over time, nearly every internet user had unknowingly signed away their data.

Most recently, newer technologies like the Internet of Things (IoT) and wearables like the Apple Watch have exponentially multiplied the number of access points that bad actors have to siphon sensitive information. And this is only the beginning. With recent innovations like AI, VR, self-driving vehicles, and more, greater connectivity will come at the cost of greater vulnerability.

Data Breaches Are On The Rise

Major data breaches are becoming more and more commonplace. Just this year alone, there have been over 2,000 data breaches affecting over 200 million people. These attacks will often expose data on millions of users in a single, swift blow.

What's scary is that platforms are equally vulnerable. Whether it's social media, hotels, banks, insurance companies, or virtually any other organization that handles digital information, they are all at risk of cyber-attacks. And hackers are getting more sophisticated, orchestrating more complicated attacks that are harder to detect by these companies.

Each breach chips away at consumer trust, not just in the breached brand but further in the broader digital ecosystem as a whole. Would you want to provide your contact information or payment details on Amazon if they were recently compromised? Likely not. Hacked companies face massive damage to their reputation as well as a loss of customer loyalty. This can directly impact the bottom line - lower sales, revenue, and brand value.

Absent Government Regulation

With technology advancing at light speed, legislators have lagged far behind in protecting consumers and their digital privacy. Lawmakers first began proposing internet privacy bills in the late 1990s, as the internet started taking over the world and online data collection was just getting started. But early efforts stalled due to lobbying from tech companies who wanted to keep the "Wild West" days of the web alive.

It wasn't until the 2000s that meaningful discussions around digital security started picking up pace. In 2018, the state of California took the initiative by passing the Consumer Privacy Act. This bill was a reflection of growing bipartisan concerns around data collection in the US and where it was headed. The act requires full transparency from companies while also granting residents the right to access their data. Further data privacy regulations are currently in the conversation at both state and national levels; however, creating comprehensive legislation has proven extremely complex thus far.

How Brands Can Bolster Security

With all this in mind, it's more important than ever before for brands to enhance their digital security measures. Taking proactive steps to enhance privacy and safeguard consumer data will prove invaluable for modern brands hoping to foster trust and loyalty. While no network is 100% impenetrable, companies can still take action to bolster their digital ecosystem and protect consumer privacy and security.

Get The Basics Right

First things first, brands need to get the technical basics right. Start by investing in industry-standard protective measures, such as end-to-end encryption, firewalls, intrusion detection systems, and more, to bolster your digital infrastructure against cyber-attacks. Furthermore, ensure that all routine software patches and system updates are made to keep your digital ecosystem updated with the best security.

Multi-factor authentication (MFA) is another basic protective measure that can go a long way in maintaining digital security. MFA requires any user trying to enter your system to authenticate his request with another device, increasing security by double-checking who enters what. This should be implemented across all employee accounts and devices, especially for those handling valuable customer information.

Build a Security-Focused Culture

Equally important as getting the basics right is establishing a security-focused culture within your company. This internal ethos helps close the gaps and ensure that employees are doing their part to maintain digital security. You can build this culture within your teams in many ways, like by holding comprehensive employee training on digital security. It could cover key tips and best practices, such as how to:

  • handle user data
  • resist phishing attempts
  • create strong and unique passwords
  • securely transmit sensitive documents

If you're a business-facing or B2B company, it could be helpful to hold this training session with your customers, too. After all, these are companies — just like yours — who handle a fair share of their data and likely face the same risks.

The goal with all this is to demonstrate your company's ongoing commitment to digital security, and how you plan to prevent attacks rather than merely react to them. Consider creating a formal Information Security department or team in the company. You could even appoint a Chief Information Security Officer (CISO) to lead them, echoing that your brand and its leadership are invested in this mission.

Monitor & Prepare For Threats

Once you've done your due diligence and implemented security measures for your digital ecosystem, it's time to wait and watch. What this means is to start monitoring your systems continuously for irregularities, potential vulnerabilities, or unauthorized access to your digital infrastructure. Security teams should actively watch networks, whether in real-time or after the fact, and flag any such unusual activity.

To better prepare, you can even construct an Incident Response Plan. This is a written document, built and approved by senior leadership, that helps your organization before, during, and after a security incident. A great Incident Response Plan should convey how to secure breached systems, communicate with different stakeholders, minimize operational disruption, and preserve digital evidence for later analysis.

Your company can test your digital readiness by conducting simulated cyber-attacks, commonly known as penetration testing. These are similar to a fire drill in purpose and structure, as you game out various breach scenarios and rehearse how to respond ahead of time; through penetration testing, employees can become more comfortable responding to crises. This not only helps identify weaknesses in your digital systems but also ensures that your reaction mechanisms are ready for when a real threat emerges.

Wrapping Up

The rapid rise of technology has left us exposed. From the internet to smartphones to whatever tool comes next, consumer privacy and security are now at more risk than ever. Companies that neglect to protect their digital ecosystems risk loss of reputation, decreased revenue, or, even worse, permanent damage to their brand.

There are ways for brands to mitigate these digital threats, though. Start bolstering your systems by first getting the basics right - encryptions, firewalls, etc. Then, build a security-focused culture within your company to close the gaps and ensure compliance by all employees. Finally, monitor your newly-fortified systems continuously and prepare a plan for how you'll respond to future threats.

Stay vigilant!

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