The issue of data privacy has been a contentious one in recent years. Especially in the age of social networks and smartphones, people are providing details about their lives that were once only known by close friends. Now the information is privy to complete strangers, often with no more than a simple Google search.
For some, this seems like no big deal. Who cares if someone knows that you’re the mayor of that taco stand on South Lamar? Is the fact that you worked at a temp agency six years ago really privileged information? In many cases, the answer is no. A lot of people put personal information out there and don’t lose a second of sleep.
But this does beg the question of how much is too much? What level of personal revelation are we comfortable with when it comes to the Internet? Taking it a step further, are we even aware of how much information on us is out there?
Many people would be surprised to learn just how much personal information is available on the Internet. The data collection practices of Facebook, Google and other household names are well documented, and those who pay attention to such things know that there are ways to get around them.
But then there are other, lesser-known sites that may cause some concern. One site that comes to mind is Spokeo.com, whose banner reads “Not your grandma’s white pages.” The website gathers publicly available information on an individual from social networks, phone books, real estate listings and other public sources and aggregates it in an easily searchable database. Through the site, one can find out someone’s address, phone number, marital status, political affiliation, even astrological sign.
Nothing about Spokeo’s data collection tactics is illegal, and it is also possible to remove your information by providing your email address. But, as the website states, this will not delete it from the original source. Plus, Spokeo is certainly not the only website of its kind, and those who are concerned about how much personal information is available online may be disturbed to know how easily it can be found.
It is clear that we are living in an era in which people are more comfortable sharing personal details than ever. But is privacy something that we should expect in the age of information? Perhaps more importantly, is it something we can even control?
A recent Reuters report highlighted some of the information that people willingly share in this era of social networks and smartphones. Both Google+ and Facebook require users to submit their names, genders and birth dates. The applications associated with those sites often ask for much more, including access to photos, “Likes” and other information. Furthermore, many smartphone apps access personal contacts, call records and geographical locations.
This information can be used for any number of reasons. Often, it is provided to third-party advertisers, but some websites also send it to banks, insurance companies and other outside businesses, Reuters noted.
Data privacy concerns aren’t limited to online companies either. Earlier this month, the New York Times reported that retail giant Target analyzes shopping habits to predict major events in a consumer’s life – like a graduation or a wedding. The practice can create uncomfortable, and potentially intrusive, situations however, as was discovered when an angry father demanded to know why Target was sending his daughter coupons for baby clothes and cribs.
It turns out that the daughter was several months pregnant, but had not yet told her parents, the Times reported. Target’s data collection practices, it seems, forced the daughter’s hand to breaking the news.
Fortunately, there is progress being made to curb some of the more questionable data privacy practices. Facebook, for example, has made several moves in recent years to give users more control over what information is publicly available. Google, as well, offers solutions for people concerned about privacy, including the incognito search option for its Chrome web browser.
Lawmakers are also paying attention to this situation. The European Union has been especially vocal about the way social networks collect and store shared information. In December, Irish data protection commissioner Billy Hawkes completed a three-month investigation into Facebook’s data privacy practices and released a road map of best practices to ensure the social network is using and protecting personal information responsibly.
In the United States, the Federal Trade Commission reached an agreement with Facebook that requires the social network to undergo 20 years of audits to ensure its data privacy practices are adequate. Congress has proposed a number of bills that include “do not track” provisions, which would inhibit Internet companies from collecting certain information on users. Though the pieces of legislation have yet to become law, the fact that they’re being brought up is a good sign for privacy advocates. It is likely just a matter of time before such a bill is passed.
Ultimately, however, it will come down to the user to decide on how much information he or she is comfortable sharing. Those who harbor serious privacy concerns are advised to thoroughly explore the data collection and sharing practices of the various social networks, mobile apps and whatever other services they use. If a user feels his or her information is not being adequately protected, then the best solution may be to stay away from that service, which will mitigate the chances that personal data falls into the wrong hands.
Data Security News from SimplySecurity.com by Trend Micro