Why you should care about your online privacy

It seems like every week we hear about some type of invasion of privacy. Whether it’s Facebook, the Ashley Madison hack or Advertisers. We know someone is watching what we’re doing online all the time. So what’s the point in caring anymore? It’s about control.

Online privacy is about the ability to control the information you release about yourself. It means that you are aware of what information is public about you, and you can alter that information to suit your needs. Privacy isn’t about keeping things away from the public eye; it’s about choosing what the public sees.

Traditional wisdom says that if you don’t want information public, then you shouldn’t put it online. That’s certainly true, but there’s a lot of private information you have out there that you might not even realise is public.

Your Social Updates, Photos, and Other Personal Stuff

It might sound obvious, but the main privacy concern for most people is keeping their digital persona under wraps. It’s incredibly easy to dig up information on people, even when they are not doing a ton of stupid things and just leaving it out all out there.

My friend, James, lodged an objection against his neighbour, Pete’s, building application. James was invited to motivate his objection at the local council meeting and decided to check the personal facts Pete had presented as motivation for the building to be approved.  Pete’s Facebook profile was private, but after about 10 minutes of online research, James was able to view Pete’s divorce records, knew where he had travelled to in the last couple of years and that he was an active member of a kink/fetish group. None of this helped James with his building objection, but possibly shared more information than either of them would be comfortable with.

For your own sake, keeping a clean online presence is essential for job hunting, your status in your community and your family’s reputation. Understanding the way privacy settings work on your social media accounts and being careful about what information you and your friends make public is the first step to ensuring those photos of you in your BDSM gear are not shared accidentally.

Credit Cards, Addresses, and Other Personally Identifiable Information

The other main privacy concern everyone can identify with is sensitive information like credit cards, credit reports, addresses, health information and other similarly personal stuff.

The fact is, we release a lot of this information online, and it’s incredibly easy to dig up off your hard drive, from retailers, or after a data breach or hack. Part of the issue here is security, but it’s also about privacy.

The Ashley Madison hack is a big reminder to all web users: If you submit private data online, it could become public, even if you ask to have it deleted. The hackers, who stole the Ashley Madison data earlier this year and then posted it online, claimed in a statement that part of the reason for the theft was Ashley Madison’s fraudulent promise to fully delete users’ information if they paid the company a $19 fee.

The initial consequences were bad enough. Once the names were exposed to the world, it was revealed that thousands of public figures were among its paid members. But the ripple effects of the breach are likely to be far greater. That’s because in the wake of the hack, enterprising coders created online tools that allowed anyone to search their network of email addresses to check if their friends, family, partners and spouses used the website. It must feel like Christmas for divorce lawyers.

The Ashley Madison debacle has brought data invasion to the masses and crowdsourced it. It’s no longer faceless corporations, famous figures or powerful government institutions whose privacy has been assaulted. Most of the millions of Ashley Madison members are ordinary people, engaged in an absolutely legal (and apparently, commonplace) activity. The Ashley Madison hackers will inspire copycats. This time, the victims were wannabe cheaters. Next time, the target might be one that inspires less prurient schadenfreude: Victims of domestic violence, members of the LGBT community, political activists, human rights activists, police officers, rehab centers….HIV foundations.

So what do you do now?

You can protect yourself to some extent, but we have to adapt to a post-privacy word, where everything we ever said, did or shared could potentially become public. In the end, the important thing is to be actively aware of the transaction you are making when you click through another privacy policy. If something is free, it’s likely that you are the product, and it’s up to you to decide whether the service is worth the price of admission.



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