When you ask a hoarder why they are hoarding whatever it is they have an unusual abundance of; they will tell you, “it’s a collection”. No, it is not a collection of anything. It is a problem! While on the job I have walked into homes where there was an obvious hoarding problem. The worst example of this was a woman who was hoarding cats. In her small home, there must have been 40 cats, maybe more. Can you imagine the smell, and disgust that permeated the air? Terrible, especially for someone like me who was doesn’t care much for felines. People accumulate all sorts of junk throughout their lives, and a reasonable practice is to develop the habit of throwing away what you no longer need or have a use for. That’s how we stay organized, clutter free, clean, and sane. Today, I am going to discuss the importance of de-cluttering your digital life.
Imagine for a moment all of the digital clutter you may have in your life right now. If you added up all of the emails, documents, photos, apps, text messages, etc., in all the various places where these things are, there is probably a TON of digital content you have accumulated over the years. That digital content contains a lot of personal data about you. If someone were to gain access to those accounts, cloud servers, or hard drives that contain your digital clutter, how compromising could that be for you? How devastating would it be if a hacker, or rogue employee had access to all of that information. What if that information was seized by the government or legally obtained through a court order? You should be aware that there are countless ways (both legally and illegally) that your data can be compromised. The more data you have stored, the more devastating a breach could be for you.
We should treat digital clutter as we would any other type of clutter in our lives. If it is sitting around collecting dust, throw it out. If it has not been used, or will not be needed again, get rid of it. Whatever you do decide is important enough to keep, store it in an organized fashion somewhere secure (preferably encrypted). Here are some examples of places that accumulate digital clutter that you should consider cleaning up.
Clear out every email account you have. Not just your inbox, but every saved item in every folder you have set up in each account. If you don’t need an email anymore, delete it, then permanently delete those deleted items. When new mail arrives, make a decision to respond, archive it, or delete it. Don’t let messages accumulate. Any email you have stored is subject to discovery in a legal proceeding, and subject to being compromised if the account is hacked. About a year ago I cleared out 10 years worth of emails from one account. Ninety percent of those had simply accumulated over time, they contained info I no longer needed and were deleted forever. A great deal of sensitive information was also removed from the server at that time, which was a good feeling.
Do you need everything is your documents folder? Probably not. Delete what can be deleted, and move what needs to be kept to a secure location (Encryption Guides).
Nowadays a tremendous amount of data may be collecting “in the cloud”. If you use cloud storage services (Drop Box, Box, iCloud, OneBox, etc) be sure to de-clutter those as well. Data on the cloud may be in the form of contacts, emails, photos, calendars, documents, and others services depending on what company you are using. I encourage you to carefully consider the type of personal information you store in the cloud. This data may be secure behind a password protected log in, however the data is not under your control. Anything stored in the cloud is at risk of of being compromised and history has shown that cloud data is a very rich target. Carefully consider what you store there, if anything at all.
Delete photos that have no value to you, there are probably many more than you think. Take the time to consider each one, and remember how much data a photo can reveal. For more on photo EXIF data, review this information (LINK).
Do you have old USB drives laying around? If they contain nothing valuable anymore, reformat the drives to ensure the data is gone. Re-purpose these drives to use in a solid back-up strategy for you digital data.
Nothing good comes from leaving an archive of old text message on your phone or computer. Read, respond, delete!
Those of you who have been reading my blog already know my stance on social media. Any privacy conscious person should not be using social media, period. For everyone else who can’t bring themselves to leave Facebook, you should constantly be de-cluttering your social media life. Facebook (and all others) already have a permanent record of everything you have ever posted, and there may be public record of it also. You should still delete what you no longer want others to see and constantly re-evaluate what you choose to share.
Keeping your mobile applications and the amount of software programs on your computer to a minimum is a well known security best practice. The fewer applications you use, the fewer potential vulnerabilities there are in your system that may be exploited. Software and apps are constantly updated to keep up security threats. Adopt a minimalist approach to the apps you allow on your system and carefully consider each one. Uninstall what you no longer have a need for. It will free up space, and expose your computing environment to fewer vulnerabilities.
Clean up your bookmarks, and delete anything outdated and unused. Make a habit of cleaning out your browser cache, history cookies, and saved form data. Most modern browsers have many options and settings that make this process easy and automatic. Discussing all of the vulnerabilities of browsers is not the subject of this post, however you should be familiar with the limitations and capabilities of the browsers you choose to use. A great deal of personal information is stored and leaked during your time online. We may revisit this topic in the future, but for now, get your browsers cleaned up and be proactive about learning about better alternative browsers that are available. Firefox Configuration Guide
This is certainly not an all inclusive list of everywhere your data may be located. Access your situation and the devices and services you use. Also, there are several free system cleaners that you can use to “deep clean” your computer and browsers from time to time. This software can be used for weekly or monthly maintenance and will help clean your system and improve performance. I will provide links at the end of this post.
Bottom line, take a good look at everything you have accumulated in your digital life. All of that data contains personal information that could be used against you if it were stolen or compromised. The less of it, the better. After all this is accomplished, you will be more organized and your data will be safer. You will also have developed good habits for protecting your data, and you will probably accumulate a lot less because of it. I hope some of this was helpful.