Saturday, January 28, 2012

Data Privacy Day 2012: Is Your Online Data Really Private?

The Truth About How Public Your Online Information Is May Shock You

January 28th is Data Privacy Day created by the National Cyber Security Alliance. The holiday was created originally to educate teens and young adults about keeping their private data protected but has grown into a multifaceted project involving adults, consumers, and businesses as well as advocacy for individual rights. It is somewhat telling that today's Google Doodle was not used to promote awareness of the internationally recognized day but instead used to highlight a the seasonal anniversary of the World's Largest Snowflake.

For those of us who can still recall a time before the social web, back in the hey day of Netscape and IRC, the idea of putting your real and personal details online was unheard of and practically a bone-headed move. No one would even consider sharing such personal details that literally anyone with internet access could find and exploit. Having your private data shared online by a rival equated to the kiss of death. Users were much more aware of the permanence and danger involved in exposing private data online.

Nothing could further from the truth today. With social media dominating the modern web, Facebook and Twitter users constantly share personal information between themselves often unwittingly making the information public for all to see. In fact, for some, more detailed personal information about themselves is recorded online than offline. Being one of those “elders” who can recall that magical time before the internet in general, I see young adults and teens alike rampantly posting personal pictures, videos, and other more basic information online in a manner that can be viewed by all not understanding the harm it could cause to them now and in the future.

Facebook and similar sites do allow users to control what they share with others via privacy settings. These restrictions do help obscure our private data from others who would use it either against us or to their benefit. However, perhaps the biggest privacy concern comes from Facebook's data collection itself. Like Google's geo-targeting ad and those that are displayed based on our “preferences” which are determined by recording our searching habits, Facebook collects basic data from its users which it uses to display targeted advertisements in the sidebar. Both Google and Facebook resell this information to online marketers and advertisers who display ads and gamed search results to you.

No can blame Google, Facebook, or any other company for this practice. It is commonly known that they do this and the revenue helps them to build their free services that are used by so many people. The disconnect happens when private data is sold to people who resell the data itself. The fear that the data a user shares privately could be obtained by a less scrupulous advertising company could become real in this scenario. At that point, who knows where your once private data has gone and what it will be used for?

Do Google and Facebook really respect individual data privacy? It is somewhat telling that today's Google Doodle was not used to promote awareness of the internationally recognized holiday but instead used to highlight the seemingly trivial seasonal anniversary of the World's Largest Snowflake. Both companies have recently announced refinements to their privacy policies with initiative to develop more transparency (at least for Google). The revisions seek to compile all of your online data into one spot. Facebook has a similar initiative tied to their Timeline project which displays everything a Facebook user has posted ever with apps to interconnect your sharing across the web.

It's hard to tell whether these internet giants are genuinely concerned with protecting the privacy of their users or just pretending to while a massive conspiracy looms in the shadows. The truth of the matter is that people will continue to freely share their private data online especially in social contexts because this has become a way of life. The data is already out there now, we will just have to wait to see what happens next.

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