Privacy on the Internet: How to Protect Yourself in a Digital Social Age

Is there any way for a person to know just how much of his or her information is available online? You might think you have a good grasp on what has accumulated on the web about you, but most likely you have no idea.

A search for your name on a public records website may turn up not only your name and address, but also the full names, ages, and addresses of each person in your family. A Google search may turn up your Facebook page and public photos, allowing anyone in the world to see what you did last weekend.

Even seemingly harmless information is collected on the web, as more and more websites are utilizing “direct marketing.” Amazon, for example, recommends books and music depending on what the consumer has bought in the past. Gmail picks out words from personal emails and posts ads related to those words. Even if you choose not to click the “save my information for future transactions” button, some things about you have, in fact, been saved. While these bits of information alone may not seem like much, if the same advertiser uses more than one of the sites that you do, and that advertiser gleans information from those sites, they may have a nice and rather complete profile on you.

Networking Your Online Privacy Away

Privacy problems have been made worse by the widespread use of social networking sites. People have a tendency to reveal too much information and make it available to too many people. In addition, most social networking sites’ policy is to take ownership of information as soon as it is posted, leaving the user with little or no control over that information if he or she ever wants it removed (and there are no laws to protect the user in these situations).

Facebook, in particular, has borne the brunt of recent critical outcry that its new “instant personalization” program shares too much personal information about users. This feature allows websites such as CNN and Pandora to access friend lists and other data. “Instant personalization” is an “opt-out” program, meaning every user was automatically signed up to participate, and thus unwittingly may have provided access to sites other than Facebook.

One of the reasons that individual websites are able to collect and share so much private information is that internet privacy laws are somewhat lax. As long as the website abides by its privacy policy (which users must accept), the consumer has very little recourse. Thus, the choice is either to give up privacy or to miss out on utilizing all that the web has to offer.

The Dangers of Sharing Private Information

Sites like MySpace, Facebook and ChatRoulette are useful for how easy they make communication, but they also make it especially effortless for predators to contact potential victims. Facebook was recently used by a murderer to lure a teenage girl to the countryside with the promise of a job working with animals (the killer had discovered her love of animals by looking at her interests on the website). Chat sites have long been prowling grounds for child predators who pretend to be kids looking for friends.

With the growing popularity of social networking sites among people who are not teens comes a new danger. Many users are now parents with young children who do not think twice about posting pictures of their kids (with the names captioned below). This sort of practice opens the door for a stranger to gain a child’s trust: what five-year-old would not trust a man who knew her name, her parents’ names, and where she lived?

How to Protect Yourself on Facebook

Facebook is a complicated beast. Its privacy policy is now longer than the Constitution, and though the company has promised to make the privacy settings more user-friendly, even the most computer-savvy Facebook users have trouble understanding how to adjust them.

It is important to keep certain information from the public at large. If all your profile information is set to public, not only can every Facebook user see that information, but also anyone surfing the web can see most of it. The first thing to do is go to the Account tab in the upper right hand corner and scroll down to Privacy Settings, then click on Contact Information. This is where your most sensitive information is – address, phone number, and personal email. Most of these will by default be open to the public. This information should be viewable to “friends only” at the very most, and, ideally, you should set it to “only me.”

The second setting to edit is the Personal Information and Posts. This is where you edit the accessibility settings for your photos, birthday, and religious views. Your birthday should be viewable by only your friends. Depending on your personal circumstances, you may want your photos to be viewable by only certain friends. Facebook allows users to make lists of friends, and then the user can allow only those friends to access certain information. To do this, you’ll want to click on “customize.” This will enable you to block certain people (co-workers or your boss, for example) from seeing certain photos.

The third important setting to edit is the Friends, Tags, and Connections. This is where users list their family members, interests, and school or workplace. You should assume most of your friends already know a lot of this information and consider removing it altogether. At the very least, though, you should change the settings to “friends only.”

Lastly, if you want to opt-out of the “instant personalization” program described above, click Applications and Websites, and change the setting for “instant personalization pilot program.” All you have to do is un-check the box.

Facebook has recently said it will respond to consumer demands for less complicated privacy controls. The best thing to do is check your privacy settings every couple of weeks and respond to any changes the Facebook administrators have made, as these new controls will be implemented gradually.