The digital spring clean: how to sort out your passwords, privacy and bulging photo folder

The digital spring clean: how to sort out your passwords, privacy and bulging photo folder

From those 6,000 cloud-stored selfies to your most guessable and reused passwords, here is an easy, expert guide to wielding a virtual vacuum

Published by | Alex Hern 


There are, as always, two kinds of people in the world: those who are wondering what to do with all their free time, and those who are wondering what happened to it. The split seems to be closely correlated with the number of children who live with you.

If you are in the former group, you, like me, may have exhausted a significant quantity of procrastination cleaning. I have vacuumed under the sofa, changed the filter on my cooker hood, and even started painting the kitchen.

So why not introduce a digital component to the great tidy-up? Your laptop’s downloads folder might not literally collect dust, but whether physical or digital, the longer you leave things to fester, the harder they become to eventually deal with.

Turn off your notifications

We all do it: it’s the honeymoon period with a new app, freshly downloaded, full of possibility. It asks for notification access and you grant it. Then nine months go by, and suddenly it is flashing up a push alert for a 10% off code for an annual subscription if you refer three friends. You dismiss the notification and get on with your day, but the app keeps showing up – never enough to prompt you to action, but frustrating all the same.

So head to your notification settings, and search for the apps you actually want to hear from. A good rule of thumb is, only give notification access to apps that will send you real messages from real people. Oh, and maybe your favourite news app.

Clear out your photos folder

It’s easier than ever to take photos, and have more of them than ever are stored on our devices. So it’s harder than ever to find the pictures that we want to look at.

AI helps a bit: Apple is moderately good at letting you search for pictures by who is in them, what they are of, or where they were taken; Google does the same job better, with a privacy trade-off. But if you want a photo library that serves a purpose beyond hoarding, you will have to delete some pictures.

Screenshots are a good target, as is clearing out all but one of every image of which you took 15 versions. And why not trim your selfie folder to just the greatest thirst traps, chucking those sunsets that don’t quite match the reality of being there. You could save yourself money – how many of us are paying for extra cloud storage to avoid tackling this mess head-on? And you would be reducing your carbon footprint too.

A woman looking at a computer screen
 You might be surprised how easily hackers can break your ‘uncrackable’ passwords.
Image by stokpic from Pixabay 

Set up a password manager

If you don’t use a password manager, your digital life is insecure. I have heard it all, from people who insist that they have an uncrackable system (putting “amaz0n” at the end of one password and “faceb00k” at the end of the other is less secure than you think) to people who swear blind that they have memorised a unique password for every site they visit (until they are pushed, when they admit that yes, they have one password they reuse for “unimportant” sites).

The truth is, most “hacks” I hear about are due to “credential stuffing” – using stolen login-password combinations from one site to breach another, thanks to the fact that “people just can’t stop reusing passwords”. So download a password manager, such as 1Password or Dashlane – they tend to be easier to use and more flexible than the built-in options from Apple and Google, although those work in a pinch – and devote some time to switching your bad passwords to good random ones.

… and get a second factor

Then, turn on two-factor authentication everywhere you can. This requires you to type in a code, as well as your password, every time you log in, and offers some protection against phishing attacks. Try to avoid text message-based systems if you can, though: instead, get an app such as Authy, or use the built-in two factor tools in services such as 1Password, to store the codes you generate.

At the very least, you should do this for Amazon, Twitter, Facebook and Google, and if you want to get serious about it, a YubiKey (a small physical dongle that plugs in to your phone or computer) can do the same thing even faster.

Hit ‘unsubscribe’

Just like phone notifications, unwanted email is an efficiency nightmare. It is quicker to hit delete and move on, but over time, it would be quicker to unsubscribe from all those emails you never read. So do it! Trawl through your deleted emails, and click on unsubscribe on those you no longer want to receive.

Automated services will do this for you, but these are a privacy nightmare – one of the most famous, unroll.me, apologised in 2017 after it emerged that its business model involved selling user data gathered from the inboxes it monitored.

Find out if you have been pwned

This one is easy: go to haveIbeenpwned.com, and type in every email address you have. Then, when the site inevitably tells you that your personal information has been stolen by hackers numerous times, get a password manager.

Stare long and hard at Facebook’s ‘delete account’ button

I can’t tell you to delete Facebook. The site remains pivotal to the social lives of many, and its hooks into other services mean that even if you rarely go to Facebook.com, deleting your account might be a difficult choice. But I can suggest that you strongly consider it: Facebook is the ground zero for many of the disordered digital habits that a spring clean is supposed to help, from receiving manipulative notifications to endless scrolling.

If you can’t bring yourself to delete your account, then deleting the app is a good step towards it: doing so will help heighten your sense of whether or not you really enjoy using Facebook, or just click on it because it’s there.

A man smiling as he looks at his smartphone
 Pressing delete more often could give you a brighter digital future.
Image by Hilary Clark from Pixabay

Tell Google to track you less

Google is admirably open about all the ways it keeps track of your every move and utterance. The site stores its surveillance history in public, for you to check, at myactivity.google.com. A visit there will reveal everything Google has been monitoring, from your web searches, to the YouTube videos you watch, to where you go and what you say to your phone.

The good news is, it’s easy to delete it all, to set up automatic deletions going forward, or even just to prevent the company tracking you at all. I did the latter, and haven’t looked back since.

Delete your downloads

Neat file systems are alike; each messy one is messy in its own way – and an awful lot of them involve storing everything on the desktop. Still, without knowing what horrors you have inflicted on your poor hard drive, I can’t tell you how to fix them. But I can suggest one area you have probably let slide: your downloads folder.

If you are anything like me, the downloads folder is a mixture of things you never meant to download, things that you have already copied over elsewhere, installed, or added to a library, and things that you needed once then forgot about. So clear them out – but be careful, because everyone also has one file in their downloads folder that is irreplaceable, essential, and named something like Dwnld124067395. Make sure you move that one somewhere safer, and rename it.

Check third-party integrations

Ross Sleight, of the digital consultancy Somo, suggests this: “Regularly check and clear the third-party sites and apps that are using your Facebook or Google ID as login information. Sharing this info makes it faster for you to create accounts, but it’s worth reviewing and revoking the access for sites and apps you’ve not used for a while.”

Facebook’s cybersecurity is pretty good, but if you gave access to your profile to “what Hollywood celebrity are you dot tv” in 2009, and that gets hacked, there isn’t much Facebook can do to stop criminals wreaking havoc on your digital life. Block outdated integrations now, before you regret it later.

Americans have had enough …

… and are marching for justice in unprecedented numbers. In small towns and big cities across the country, thousands of people are giving voice to the grief and anger that generations of black Americans have suffered at the hands of the criminal justice system. Young and old, black and white, family and friends have joined together to say: enough.

The unconscionable examples of racism over the last weeks and months come as America’s communities of color have been hit hardest by the coronavirus and catastrophic job losses. This is a perfect storm hitting black Americans. Meanwhile, the political leadership suggests that “when the looting starts, the shooting starts”. The president who promised to end the “American carnage” is in danger of making it worse.

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