The Privacy Tradeoff

Do you have a Facebook profile? Regularly Tweet your status? Check in on Foursquare everywhere you go? If you’re like millions of other Internet users who engage in those activities, chances are pretty good that you’re exposing a lot of personal information to more than just your online friends.

Published: 7.14.2010

There has been a lot of backlash in the media lately about Facebook repeatedly updating and changing its privacy policy and default privacy settings, exposing additional user information to both their marketing partners and search engines like Google, Yahoo, and Bing.

For GenXers (like me) and many folks of older generations, the concept of privacy is something we consider sacred. Making your weekend escapades public and spouting off controversial statements for everyone to see and hear is typically not something we would have done before the advent of the World Wide Web and social networking.

So, why do so many of the younger generation do it now? (And get off my lawn while you’re at it!)

Is the concept of privacy outdated to them? Do they not realize that the things they post now can come back to haunt them later in life or when entering the job force? Or does it just not matter as much?

The simple fact is that the pervasiveness of social networking has somehow made it acceptable to trade our privacy and personal information away for luxury of being connected to other people. I personally disagree with this philosophy, but for those kids and teens who have never known a world without the Web, it’s a different story. The fact that the Web enables anyone to self-publish is a double-edged sword.

Facebook and other social networking sites may be “free,” but there is nothing truly free about them. In exchange for you giving out information about your interests, hobbies, job and games and friends, they let you use their site to connect with your friends. They use your personal information to sell ads targeted directly to you. Facebook’s default privacy settings expose a lot of personal information to search engines and even to Facebook visitors who are not logged in. Their own privacy policy is quite clear:

Information set to “everyone” is publicly available information, just like your name, profile picture, and connections.  Such information may, for example, be accessed by everyone on the Internet (including people not logged into Facebook), be indexed by third party search engines, and be imported, exported, distributed, and redistributed by us and others without privacy limitations. Such information may also be associated with you, including your name and profile picture, even outside of Facebook, such as on public search engines and when you visit other sites on the internet.  The default privacy setting for certain types of information you post on Facebook is set to “everyone.” You can review and change the default settings in your privacy settings. If you delete “everyone” content that you posted on Facebook, we will remove it from your Facebook profile, but have no control over its use outside of Facebook.

This disturbing trend continues unabated all across the Web at sites like Spokeo, which collects information about people all over the world based on their location and other highly personal data (like address, phone number, home value and credit score) and allows anyone to view a good amount of that information free of charge.

It was shocking enough to me (a fairly jaded Internet veteran) that when I viewed my own Spokeo profile, I immediately filled out the form to have my information removed from the site. A lot of it was dead-on, but there was some info that was just dead-wrong. I won’t deny I looked up few people myself while I was there, though.

So, how can you protect yourself and your children from this invasion of privacy? First and foremost, you can simply choose not to participate. Don’t set up a Facebook profile or MySpace page. Don’t give out any revealing personal information to any Web site or use the Internet for banking or communications.

The problem is that not all of us who are privacy-conscious want to be Luddites. In this era of instant communication, live blogging, YouTube, smartphones and all of the other cool stuff the Internet allows us to do, staying disconnected is probably not an option.

The Web is no different from going into a bad neighborhood – you have to watch your back and make sure you are protected. Unfortunately, there are no Internet Police, but there are some things you can do to prevent your personal information from leaking on to the Internet.

  1. Read the Privacy Policy. I know that it is paragraph after paragraph of legalese and it’s really dry stuff, but it literally tells you how the site will use your personal information. If you disagree with site’s privacy practices, don’t sign up.
  2. Get familiar with the privacy settings on the site you’re using and set them to a level that makes you comfortable. For example, I lock down my Facebook page and make very little available to non-friends. You can see my picture and my name and that’s about it.
  3. Log out of the site and attempt to access your page to see what information is publicly accessible. Adjust your privacy settings to prevent any personal information from being exposed.
  4. Learn your rights and how companies use your information.
  5. Sign up for a credit-monitoring service if you do any online shopping. Consider using a pre-paid debit card for online purchases, as it will help protect you from identity theft and credit card fraud.
  6. For parents, make your kids give you their passwords and make sure you are friends with them so you can monitor their online activities. Make it a condition of being allowed to use the Internet.
  7. Actually monitor your child’s online activities. Whether that means using a NetNanny/ CyberSitter-like filtering or monitoring solution or just popping in and keeping an eye on what they’re doing, it’s your responsibility to make sure that they are safe online. It’s no different than vetting their friends or making sure they aren’t watching inappropriate television shows.
  8. Educate your children on what privacy means and how something they post online is basically the equivalent of hanging a giant sign on your door proclaiming the same thing. The Canadian government has an excellent parent & child resource site that contains relevant information for US citizens, too:

In short, there is no way to totally protect yourself online. It’s just like the real world – you need to be conscious of your surroundings and take the appropriate steps to protect yourself and those you love.

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