Google yourself. Now go to either Spokeo.com or 123people.com and search for yourself. Surprised? Was the information correct, or was it totally off base?
Welcome to the new age of privacy. These sites are online information brokers, basically "people search engines." What they do is crawl deeply into the Web and aggregate data that a simple Google or Bing search wouldn't necessarily produce. The information is already out there, so they aren't breaking any laws, but many people are concerned and outraged by these services. Two potential class-action suits were filed recently, though one has already been thrown out.
The anger stems from the fact that unlike many other countries, the United States lacks a general privacy law, which would cover all levels of privacy including Internet, said Jules Polonetsky, co-chair and director of the Future of Privacy Forum. The organization is a think tank seeking to advance responsible data practices.
There are two separate bills regarding Internet privacy to be introduced at the federal level. One is the "Do Not Track" bill, which would direct the Federal Trade Commission to develop a mechanism for consumers to be able to opt out of having their online activity tracked, stored or shared. Think of it as the digital version of the "Do Not Call" law.
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The other bill would require advertising firms and Web companies to obtain users' permission before sharing their personal information with third parties. This is related to Facebook's plan to share personal data such as addresses and phone numbers with application developers without giving users an opportunity to opt out. Other online privacy bills are also in the works.
But Shaun Dakin, an Internet privacy expert, says that the major issue surrounding Internet privacy is a lack of understanding of many social networks' privacy controls, which can be very complex.
Dakin, who is founder of the Privacy Camp global series of privacy conferences, says that when you join a free social network such as Facebook, Twitter or Foursquare, you give up a certain level of control of your personal data to get the benefits of that social network.
Apps are data collectors
An emerging area of concern is mobile apps, as each smart phone has a unique identification number assigned to it. This number is basically a super cookie, to use the terminology of the Internet item that tracks your browsing.
Many apps are collecting and transmitting data that can be sold to third parties to tailor ads directly to specific users. And it can't be blocked or deleted, making it valuable to marketers. These apps aren't sharing your name or phone number, but instead what apps you look at and how long you spend on them.
Given the complex nature of technology, how can you manage your privacy and still have an Internet presence?
First, realize that we all have a digital footprint, regardless of whether we want it or not. The key is how we choose to actively manage it, Polonetsky says.
Here are some suggestions:
■ Don't just choose "opt-in" because those settings might share more than you realize. Regularly visit the privacy settings and refine them as needed.
■ Don't give out information unnecessarily by filling out warranty cards, applications, membership cards, etc.
■ If you don't feel comfortable with the privacy settings on a social network, then delete your account and leave. Understand your purpose for being on the particular Web site.
There isn't a one-stop shop for managing your information online, but there are sites you can visit. One is that of the Internet Advertising Bureau, which has a free opt-out service allowing you to turn off tracking cookies across many ad networks at Youronlinechoices.com/opt-out. There are also initiatives by Google, Microsoft and Firefox.
If you are concerned by what you find available about you online, there are paid services that clean up your online presence. They include Abine.com/deleteme or Reputation.com. You can also request to opt out through Spokeo's privacy page and have your information removed from that site.
Businesses can build trust
Business owners should recognize that consumers are becoming more aware and concerned about their privacy and how their data is being used.
As a special note to parents, Polonetsky and Dakin say that parents must take an active role in their children's digital lives. You must understand the privacy settings and make sure you implement them as well as monitor them.
Often, kids know more about technology than their parents, so partner with your children. It's recommended that teens not use any tool showing the Internet their location, so no Facebook Places or Foursquare check-ins.
Before you go deleting your Facebook account and unplugging your computer from the Internet, remember you can control your digital footprint. All you have to decide is how big of a print you want.