Three Simple Ways to Protect Your Privacy Online

I’ve taught courses on privacy rights for ten years and even though privacy rights have strengthened during that decade, each day brings more attacks on companies that hold your user data. This can result in real financial harm for Americans. For instance, someone opened up a Home Depot credit card in my name using information like my social security number and home address that they had stolen from a company database. This ended up costing me four hundred dollars in credit card bills for items I never purchased!

Short of advocating with Congress for increased privacy protections, what can you do to make your information safer? Here are three simple things that take less than five minutes each:

Ah the good old days, when everyone used snail mail and opening someone’s else’s mail was a crime. Photo by  Dayne Topkin  on  Unsplash

Ah the good old days, when everyone used snail mail and opening someone’s else’s mail was a crime. Photo by Dayne Topkin on Unsplash

  1. Use Two-Factor Authentication. Almost every major online company (such as Google, Facebook, Amazon and others) allow their users to implement two-factor authentication. If you haven’t already, turn that setting on. With two-factor authentication, when you login you are required to go through another step beyond entering in a username and password and enter in a third piece of information, usually a string of letters and numbers sent to your phone or email address. Since you own the phone or email address, entering in this third data point proves it’s really you logging in and not a criminal. Using two-factor authentication makes it difficult for hackers to steal your sensitive information because they have to jump through the same hoops to login and without your phone in their possession, they don’t have access to that third level of security. Here’s how Apple implements two-factor authentication.

  2. Use a VPN. A virtual private network (VPN) helps mask your internet activity by routing your information through private, third party computers as you browse. Not only does this protect your information from hackers, but also from your internet service provider (ISP), i.e. Comcast etc. Sometimes using a VPN can also result in faster internet browsing speeds. It takes two minutes to setup and anyone can do it. Cloudflare provides a popular, free VPN service.

  3. Keep Software Updated. This one is dead simple. Make sure your computer and mobile device operating system is always updated to the latest version. Turn on automatic updates to make this an even simpler process. Updated software often includes patches for security vulnerabilities and loopholes hackers can exploit.

We don’t have control over how companies secure their data, so that remains a point of vulnerability. There are a number of other steps you can take beyond these three, but the important lesson is to remain vigilant as you browse. A VPN and the latest software can be very helpful, but even these can fail if you don’t think critically before clicking on that suspicious email or website.

The Most Amazing Study Hack Ever Invented

Photo by  Gerry Cherry  on  Unsplash

When classes begin every semester, half of my students pull out laptops to take notes. I can understand why. In fact, I used a laptop to take notes during my entire first year of law school. Taking notes on a laptop has many benefits:


  • Notetaking on a laptop is efficient. Because most people can type much faster than they can handwrite, a student can capture everything the professor is saying, making sure an important detail that may become relevant on an exam or assignment, isn’t missed.

  • Laptops are portable. This makes it easy to take notes in different classes.

  • Digital notes are a flexible medium that allow you to seamlessly add images and graphs that a professor references during lecture.

  • Most importantly, a laptop allows your notes to be searchable - a huge benefit when the time comes to review your notes.

Despite these numerous benefits, I always give a speech in every class that asks students to handwrite their notes if possible. Why? Because handwriting is absolutely phenomenal in helping you remember information. In fact, the mere act of handwriting information and reviewing it once or twice later is likely all you ever need in order to do well on an exam. When I switched to handwriting during my second and third year of law school, I spent far less time reviewing my notes later … and my grades shot up dramatically.

Writing notes by hand is a multi-dimensional learning method. It taps your brain’s capacity to learn in different ways. We refer to these ways as learning styles. There are three primary styles: visual, auditory and kinesthetic (learning through movement). A learning environment like a classroom or business meeting involves being exposed to information through each of these senses and then reviewing this information later.

As you listen to a professor in class or your colleague at a meeting, you learn through the auditory method. This is your first exposure to the information. When you see what you type or handwrite, you learn through the visual method. This is your second exposure to the information. Later on you may review the information in preparation for an exam. This is your third exposure to the information (keep track of the number of exposures).

Some of the world’s most ancient religious traditions focus on complicated handwriting and calligraphy as a way to learn and pass on information. Photo by  Ashkan Forouzani  on  Unsplash

Some of the world’s most ancient religious traditions focus on complicated handwriting and calligraphy as a way to learn and pass on information. Photo by Ashkan Forouzani on Unsplash

Handwriting is more powerful because it involves all three learning styles, including kinesthetic, whereas typing does not. Think about it: each letter you handwrite involves a different movement which your brain recognizes, whereas typing involves identical keystrokes without any kind of differentiating feedback - one keystroke feels similar to any other. Thus, because handwriting allows for kinesthetic learning (sensory feedback received from hand movements) it provides yet another exposure to information (number four if you are keeping track).

Interestingly, handwriting’s inherent limitations - you can’t write down everything the professor says fast enough - actually provide for a fifth exposure to information. Because you can’t handwrite fast enough, your brain is forced to assess the information you hear, summarize it, and then write it down on your notepad in a succinct fashion. This process of hearing, summarizing, and then repeating is yet another exposure to information. In fact, it is difficult to summarize what you hear if you don’t understand it, so forcing yourself to undergo this process either forces you to understand the information or highlights information that is incomprehensible (hopefully encouraging you to ask the professor to explain further). Typing, meanwhile, is a passive process where none of this cognitive processing and information exposure is taking place.

Oh and one more thing, handwriting doesn’t preclude you from digitizing notes later - you can always type them out. And typing them out means you are exposed to information yet again, making this the sixth exposure to information (compared to just three for typing). When you sit down to review handwritten notes for an exam, you’ll find the information to be familiar and comprehensible. Handwriting exposes you to information twice as much as typing and forces you to wrestle with the information and understand it, making studying almost unnecessary!

So in summary:

  1. Hear the information (auditory) (1st exposure)

  2. Summarize the information (cognitive) (2nd exposure)

  3. Handwrite the information (kinesthetic) (3rd exposure)

  4. Read the information as you write (visual) (4th exposure)

  5. Digitize the information if needed (visual) (5th exposure)

  6. Review the information before an exam etc (visual) (6th exposure)

So … the moral of the story? Handwrite. Buy yourself a high quality notebook and a solid, hefty pen and enjoy the experience. See you in class.

Wealth is Different

Though Americans of color from all walks of life have become President (hi Obama!), as well as cabinet officials, CEO’s of major corporations, jurists, entrepreneurs and sport stars, very few have become wealthy as a percentage of the population.

The wealth gap is  growing . Why? Credit:  Vox Media

The wealth gap is growing. Why? Credit: Vox Media

This phenomenon, known as the racial wealth gap, is essentially a measure of the median income of families of color (specifically African-Americans) compared with the median income of white families. The median white household’s net worth is $171,000. Meanwhile, the median African-American household owns $17,600 in assets. This gap is still growing even decades after the civil rights movement.

But what is ‘wealth’?

Almost everyone calculates personal wealth by adding up total assets such as retirement accounts, the value of a home, cash, etc., and then subtracting liabilities such as any kind of debt or obligation. The number that remains is a person or family’s net worth. By 2020 white Americans will own almost 90 times as many assets as African-Americans, and nearly 70 times more than Hispanic-Americans. We use net worth as a measure of wealth because it’s real in a way other measures aren’t. For example, someone who makes 50,000 but only spends 30,000 has as much net worth as someone who earns the much higher sum of $150,000 but also spends $130,000.

Someone who invested $10,000 in 1950 and stopped investing in 1960 would be wealthier than someone who invested $12,000 from 1960 - 1972, even though the second individual invested more money over a longer period of time.

And the thing about wealth is … it grows over time … with often stupendously little effort. The earlier you buy a house, the more value it will accumulate over time. The earlier you buy a stock, the more it’ll be worth when you sell it. And wealth doesn’t just rise logarithmically, it rises exponentially. For instance, someone who invested $10,000 in 1950 and stopped investing in 1960 would be wealthier than someone who invested $12,000 from 1960 - 1972, even though the second individual invested more money over a longer period of time. The second person loses out on the power of compounding interest. Mind blown?

White families, even those who came from poor backgrounds, were often able to start the home buying process much earlier than emancipated African-Americans or immigrants to the U.S. Today’s racial wealth gap began decades ago and centuries of inequality have compounded it. If you are a white American, your grandparents probably bought a house 60 years ago for about $10,000. African-American homeowners on the other hand, were forbidden to buy in these same neighborhoods by law (a practice often referred to as “redlining”).

As friend Richard Rothstein explains in his fantastic book, Color of Law, the Federal Housing Administration was complicit in preventing African-Americans from owning assets like houses. And this kind of blatant discrimination went on until 1968, preventing Americans of color from owning any substantial assets upon which to build wealth. Even after housing discrimination was outlawed, few followed the law. Discrimination in housing continued well into the 90’s until hundreds of lawsuits made it more expensive to be a bigot and tolerance became a wise business decision. In some American communities, housing discrimination is still a fact of life.

African-American median wealth hardly budges even when you take education into account. Credit:  Vox Media

African-American median wealth hardly budges even when you take education into account. Credit: Vox Media

Educational attainment doesn’t really shift the wealth gap either. People of color and immigrants who have an advanced degree are often the only ones in their family to be as educated (I’m the only one in my family with a JD, for instance). On the other hand, many (but not all) white lawyers are often the second or third generation of professionals so educated. They aren’t expected to spend hours answering family questions about the law, or loaning out money and expertise to their less-educated family members, friends or immigrant relatives recently arriving to the country. Educational attainment for this first minority generation often becomes a barrier to wealth accumulation and those who succeed do so in spite of these barriers.

As African-American history month starts, the persistent and growing racial wealth gap in America is a sobering reminder of how far we are from true equality.

What Sears Shutting Down Really Means

marcin-kempa-573656-unsplash.jpg

Sears, one of the oldest chain stores in the United States declared bankruptcy in October 2018. The company has been around since before there were malls or even department stores. About to be liquidated completely this year, it was saved at the last minute by investors, but will now shrink to a fraction of its size, and is almost inevitably slated to hit the dustbin sooner rather than later.

It’s not the only store in trouble.

When was the last time you visited the Gap? Or actually bought something from Best Buy? Do you buy more from Amazon then either one of these stores? By some estimates Macy’s real estate is worth almost five times as much as the rest of its assets combined (including inventory, human capital, intellectual property etc). This is an astounding statistic. It implies that the majority of Macy’s value doesn’t derive from its core business. In fact, Macy’s might as well enter into the landlord business. Look down the increasingly sparse aisles in your neighborhood mall and you’ll see things aren’t much better at JCPenney’s - that company’s stock just hit junk status.

For those millennials like myself who grew up in the 80’s and 90’s, this means the familiar brands of our childhood have been decimated in one fell swoop. But look more carefully and an interesting pattern begins to emerge: stores that cater to the lower-income segment of the market (like dollar stores) as well as stores that cater to the higher end of the market (like Bloomingdales and Neiman Marcus) are doing great.

There’s a number of economic explanations for this phenomena - chief of among them is the stubborn refusal of incomes to rise over the past three decades, even as costs increase. In other words, the rich are getting richer and thus patronizing higher-end retail. Meanwhile, the majority of the middle class is finding it difficult to afford middle-tier retail. This is fantastic for stores that cater to those who are increasingly poorer.

From  Citylab

From Citylab

Sears has stores across the country, in wealthy neighborhoods and poor ones. Because of its geographic distribution Sears’ demise is more than a notable business event. It’s an indicator of the diminishing purchasing power of Americans. And this is a problem for everyone, even wealthy entrepreneurs and business executives. Because if the middle class loses its purchasing power … who’s going to buy all the goods they used to buy? And how will companies employ people when they aren’t producing goods for people to buy? A wealthy person or a low-income individual can buy only so many shoes etc., - certainly not as many as dozens of middle class families could.