Your Personal Privacy: How Safe Are You?

17 March 2009

How confident are you that your personal data is secure? Should you share HUKD, BW, or Facebook/Twitter with your boss and colleagues? How do you even really know that they don't already read your stream every day, like the boss of 16 year old Kimberley Swann who fired her for describing her job as 'boring' on Facebook?

Issues regarding our alter-egos and identities, both online and offline, have vexed those involved in the ethics and arguments behind personal data sharing for many years. Just the other week, The Guardian revealed that more than 40 major British companies face legal action for allegedly buying secret personal data about thousands of workers they wanted to check out before employing them. This data includes their secret lives as trade union activitists, employment history, and personal relationships, compiled into a secret database by a private investigator. Comments on individuals include terms such as "communist party", "do not touch", "Irish ex-army bad egg" and "lazy and a trouble-stirrer". All this obviously breaks data protection laws by unfairly blacklisting workers, but how does this affect you as an online consumer?

When compared to any other country including the US, the British government actually have some of the most comprehensive and elaborate laws around. But as clever consumers, it would not hurt for us to be aware of the dangers and what you can do about it, in the event of mishandling. Ultimately, the individual consumer has to understand the basics of how our information is handled before engaging with anything online. Telemarketing, and to a lesser extent junk mail, take public info that by necessity has to be public (telephone numbers and addresses, for example), then exploits that info to contact you without your permission.

Another problems lies within how data and information are kept and stored. Even smart and saavy consumers leave an online data trail, like an elephant running through the jungle. It's easy to tell where they've been - they leave a trail of destruction (so not the best analogy). The point is, all it takes is for someone to know how to 'read it' to find out more information about you, or a new website like Spokeo, a service that spies into over 40 social networks and pulls out your personal photos, details... even what radio channels you may be listening to right now. Where is all this going to lead?

For now, we can only more be vigilant. But you can also learn to reduce that data trail, cloak it, or at least disguise it and truly send your opponents on a wild goose chase. 3 very basic tips to minimize your online trail can be implemented today include:

1.Create several email accounts, and never use your primary email address on sites you do not trust, especially FREEBIES.

2.Use your opt-out cookie This allows internet users to opt out of online tracking by member companies.

3.Stop entering your personal information on websites with no clear privacy agreements.

Officials at Google and AOL are also increasing consumer education about privacy. Google uses a short-form privacy policy to cover the basics, in addition to more extensive privacy policies, with 13 videos on YouTube. The problem is, it appears that very few actually know and understand that a website having a privacy policy does not guarantee that the site won't share your information with other companies.  Richard Thomas, the information commissioner, has just set up a hotline just yesterday for workers concerned that their secret lives are being exposed (08456 306060). Individuals should be ready to give their name, date of birth and national insurance number to see if their trail is out there. But I think the real issue here is when companies try to take control of your data trail from you- like what Facebook did with its Beacon program- then we have a real problem; our self-protection schemes no longer work, and we're left open to privacy invasion attacks.

TOPICS:   Privacy

5 comments

  • Mark
    'new website like Spokeo, a service that spies into over 40 social networks and pulls out your personal photos, details… even what radio channels you may be listening to right now.' Just tried Spokeo - it's very limited in what it can do. You can only search for people by email address for example so only people that know your email address would find you on the social networks. Plus it's only showing you what's publicly available. You'll find a Google search would turn up similar if not more info. People do need to be careful what info they give to these social networking sites however. I'm not sure everyone realises just how much info they are making publicly available (via a quick Google) on these sites.
  • Biffo B.
    If you use Firefox and you want to escape the tentacles of the advertisers in a big way, check out the bona fides of this guy: http://www.dubfire.net/ Then download his amazing advert opt-out cookie: http://www.dubfire.net/opt-out/
  • Lumoruk
    If you want to avoid people seeing those dirty photos, what your job title is, where you hang out, how much you earn etc blah blah write a load of 0's and 1's on your old hard drives :)
  • -=Mike H.
    I couldn't be arsed reading all that so if this is covered, apologies VVince, but I heard of prospective employers Googling prospective employees names before interviewing them finding stuff about them on Facefook and the like.
  • Google’s B.
    [...] are potential dangers, including an exposure of your data trail (discussed in our previous post on Personal Privacy). But for those that are, Google has at least made it easy to opt [...]

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