Have you ever thought about what your email address tells about you or your online identity? At first glance it might feel like nothing. However, it can actually tell way more than you might think. The thing is, your email address is linked very tightly to your online identity. Allow me to explain how.
Your online identity is based on what you are and what you do online
Whenever you connect to the internet you start creating a digital footprint. Your IP address, your internet service provider, your browser, operating system, internet speed and a whole bunch of other settings and characteristics make the basis of the “what you are”. Using this data your browser can be fingerprinted, which means that websites know when your device connects to them. You can check how well your browser protects you from fingerprinting with EFF’s free tool.
The “what you do” part is easier to understand. The pages you visit, things you download, purchases you make, how long you stay on a page, your social media profiles and likes, videos you watch… Yeah, you get the point. Everything you do in the internet leaves a mark and is part of your digital footprint. Digital footprint is sort of like an actual footprint – there’s a mark, but it can be hard to say who exactly made it.
Small pieces of information make a bigger picture
In small quantities your data is hardly useful to anyone. But piece by piece it starts to form an accurate picture of who you are and what you like. The data is collected by a plethora of parties including your internet service provider, servers you connect to, advertisers, government authorities, analytics tools, companies etc.
The data can be used for example to target you with content and ads that would possibly interest you. It can also be used for surveillance, analysis, even crimes like identity theft. The data can be surprisingly accurate in describing you, but it’s still not exactly about you as a person. It’s just a profile of someone who uses the internet.
A lot of data is connected to your email address
Your email address works as a link between your online identity and you as a person. You use email address to create profiles to all kinds of services. Services use email address for identification because it’s an easy and relatively secure way to identify who you are. Service providers can also communicate with you and your online identity through your email address.
Most likely you have used your email address with services like Facebook, Google, Netflix, Spotify, Twitter and countless others. At some of these profiles you might have included your home address, age, gender, credit card number and all kinds of other personal information.
Your email address is a direct link to you
This information is clearly about you as a person. Your home address is linked to you, your credit card number as well. The pictures on your social media profiles show how you look. Often your name is either on your email address, your social media profiles or both. All this information and a lot more is linked to your email address. Not only is this information about your online identity, but your email address ties it all to the real you.
Your internet activity as well is linked to your email address through your social media profiles. For example, Google and Facebook among many others track your activity throughout the internet. This data is connected to your Google account and Facebook profile if you are signed in. When combined with the digital footprint, the things linked to your email address can create a very accurate picture of you.
You can’t prevent breaches that include your email address
Since there is a lot of sensitive information related to your email address, which is tightly linked to you, you don’t want it to end up in wrong hands. It could lead to identity theft among other things.
The good news is that it’s not that simple for someone to get your info. Not just anyone in the internet can access your information whenever they want. Companies have security measures to keep your data safe. You can’t just go and ask stuff about your neighbor from them.
The bad news is that you can’t do anything to prevent security breaches against the parties that have your data. Your email address, passwords and all the other information you have included in your profile can be compromised because of these breaches. And there has already been a lot of them.
What can you do to improve your privacy?
Don’t give too much information of yourself
What you can do is limit what information you give of yourself. Only put such information that you absolutely need to. You often don’t have to give your real name, address or anything else. Sometimes it’s necessary, but when not, avoid it. This way when breaches happen, your info doesn’t get compromised. It’s a healthy habit to consider what info you give of yourself.
When you use multiple email addresses, less data is connected directly to you. When breaches happen, the damage is limited. One can be used when you are not sure of the security issues, one for casual profiles and one for serious business. It’s up to you how many you have and what you use them for.
Strong passwords and two-factor-authentication increase your security
Never reuse passwords on your accounts. If your password is leaked, at least your other accounts are safe. If you reuse passwords, all your profiles with the same password are at risk.
Use two-factor-authentication to make your profiles more secure. This way even if your password gets leaked, there’s still another safety measure a potential criminal would need to break through.
Check for free if your email address has been leaked in a breach
Whenever your information is leaked in a breach, you need to change your passwords. Otherwise your profile and your personal information linked to your email address are in danger. But how can you know if your account has been breached? I’m glad you asked.
F-Secure Identity Theft Checker is a free online tool which checks if your account has been part of a security breach. Just fill in your email address to the tool and an email will be sent to that address. This email includes all the known breaches that the email address has been part of. It also tells you what other personal information tied to your email address has been leaked.
The tool does not save your email address anywhere. All it does is it runs a search with the provided email, and then sends the report to the address. This way no one else than the address owner gets to see the results.
The chances are that your email address has already been a part of some breach. F-Secure Identity Theft Checker is a good way to minimize the risk of becoming an identity theft victim. Give it a go, it’s free. Read our tips on what to do next, if your security has been breached.