What you should know about online privacy

Ever feel like more and more of your life is being thrust into the public domain? The internet makes it easy to share our lives through social media and social networking. As users, it’s easy to forget that the information we put out there isn’t always in our control. Who can view, access, distribute and use our content has become a hot topic in recent years.

You don’t have to look too far back in the news to see evidence of the debate. For example, according to  Google’s new privacy policy (in effect as of March 1, 2012), the company will now integrate information from all of the services you use — like Gmail, Google+ and YouTube — in order to provide a better user experience. Its Good to Know page explains how your information is useful — but whether it’s more useful to you or to advertisers is subject to debate.

And when Facebook launched Timeline, many critics weren’t impressed with the display of information dating all the way to when you first joined. In the past few years, several organizations — including Canada’s Privacy Commissioner — have warned about privacy concerns on this widely popular social networking site. (PC World has a good overview of tips to lockdown your profile.)

In order for social networks to work, companies have to be able to store and share your content — in some cases, they technically “own” it. In addition to the content you choose to share, these sites also collect information when you sign up and fill out your profile pages — and it’s all data advertisers and other third parties can use.

So how can you protect your privacy in this brave new online world? We’ve got some tips.

Read the policies

Yes, they can be tedious and we know it’s so tempting to click “agree” so you can get on with your business. However, it’s important to know your rights and responsibilities before you sign up. Find out what information the site collects and stores — and why. Also, how is it used by the company and third party sites or applications? Will it be shared?

When you sign up, you’ll encounter the Terms of Use — but it’s not necessarily the same as the privacy policy. Links to the privacy policies can be found on the main page so you can read them before you sign up.

If you’re already a member, you may want to have another look. Sites don’t need your permission to make changes and some of these changes are automatically applied to your account. You should be notified, but it’s up to you to keep tabs on privacy issues and act on them.

Looking for a place to start? Here are the links to the privacy and data use policies for some popular sites:

Facebook: Data Use Policy
FourSquare: Privacy Policy
Google: Policies & Principles (Which includes YouTube, Google+, etc.)
LinkedIn: Privacy Policy
MySpace: Privacy Policy
Pinterest: Privacy
Twitter Privacy Policy
Yahoo.ca Privacy Center


Get to know the privacy controls

Those privacy settings can be confusing, but they can help you control the flow of information. Set them according to your comfort level and be aware of the different ways you can share content. You can use features like “lists” in Facebook and “circles” in Google+ to control who can see each post.

Also, if you think those targeted or customized ads are too personal — the ones based on content you post or your personal information — see if you can opt out. (Like Google’s Ad Preferences page, for example.)  You can also stop sites from using your picture or information in “social ads” promoted to your connections… or prevent a site from showing you third party ads when you explore other pages.

… And the loopholes too.

Unfortunately, privacy controls aren’t a “set it and forget it” proposition. When policies and features change, information that was once private can become public if you don’t watch the default settings. Don’t ignore those notifications about changes — and you may want to consult technology blogs to help you read between the lines.

Another thing to review: the applications to whom you have granted permission. For example, if you use Twitter you have granted access to applications like TweetChat, Facebook or LinkedIn, or added social games to your Facebook account.

Any easy way to find out which apps you’ve granted permission to is MyPermissions.org — the site offers links to the settings pages in many popular social networking sites.

Keep your friends close

Everyone has a different approach to who they add to their accounts and how much they share. However, be aware that your contacts can “tag” you in posts or repost your content without your permission — and make it visible to people who aren’t on your approved list.

For example, let’s say you post a controversial article for your friends only and a few people comment on it. Depending on their privacy settings, their connections will be able to see their comments and your post — including some people from whom you were trying to hide the content.

When in doubt, experts advise to only add people you know and trust — or use the highest privacy settings for people you don’t.

Be cautious what you share

You may have heard the saying:  “Beware what you share, because it could wind up anywhere”. With the ability to share other people’s content, you can’t always control where your status updates, videos and photos will end up — or what personal or professional consequences could be.

For instance, there have been several cases of people being fired or not being considered for a job because of content on their social networking sites. (See 10 career-damaging online mistakes for tips.) Social networking content is even showing up in divorce court, and people who shared their vacations have been the victims of crime at home and abroad.

Your best defense? Assume anything you post could be made public and think through the consequences. What would happen if your employer saw the post? Or your spouse, kids and grandkids?

Also, be aware of what is displayed on your profile pages. Remember, it doesn’t take much for crooks to steal your identity. Even if you only show a little information on each site, collectively you could be revealing useful information like your full name, birthday, workplace, city, contact information, photos and other personal details.

Remember “delete does not mean delete”

Once you’ve given out information, it’s almost impossible to take it back. When your content is shared, deleting the original post won’t stop the bleeding.

Companies also keep their own records. For example, search engines can keep track of your online searches for up to a year, even if you regularly delete your browser’s history. Many companies keep archives of users’ emails, texts and instant messaging conversations even if you’ve deleted them. (Your recipient may have them saved too.)

If you’re starting to feel a bit paranoid, there’s no reason to start deleting your accounts. After all, some sites still keep your information long after you’re gone. In short, if you want to keep something private, it’s best to keep it offline.

Log out

Most of us stay logged in to our social networking accounts for convenience. After all, it’s a nuisance to log in every time you want to share or “like” something you read online. Major players like Facebook and Google have partnerships with other major players which allows them to share information about you — like what sites you search for and which ones you visit.

If you don’t want your networking site to know what you’re doing elsewhere on the internet, experts warn to log out when you’re done.

Of course, there’s a lot to know about online safety — but this list will help get you started. Social media and social networking allow us to do new things and engage in new ways. It allows us to form new kinds of relationships and share information like never before.

However, the message from experts isn’t that we should avoid sharing — we just need to be smart about it.

What other topics would you like to see us cover? Tell us in the comments.

For a thorough look at online privacy on social networking sites, visit the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse’s Fact Sheets on Social Networking Privacy and Online Privacy.

Additional sources: CBC News, The Times of India, Mashable.com, Office of the Privacy Commissioner (Canada), PC World.

Photo ©iStockphoto.com/ pearleye

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