Shawn Douglas

Thursday - Mar 8, 2012

Internet privacyThis past weekend a ruckus was made over Google’s implemented privacy policy changes, with many critics arguing that the changes will only further crush people’s online privacy rights. Yet seemingly for every critic who protested the changes, someone else expressed how either the changes weren’t so limiting or — even more drastically — how our worries about privacy are a bit ridiculous.

All of the noise being made about Google’s change, as well as a recent announcement by the United States’ Obama Administration of a privacy blueprint for online consumers, has certainly muddied the water. But at the core of the complicated issue of Internet privacy are several viewpoints: one of high expectations for privacy and another of few privacy expectations.

Those with high expectations of privacy argue Internet privacy should be as important as that which we have in our own homes. “Private lives, personal secrets, confidential information – all of it is potentially compromised by the vast network of Internet data sharing,” said Buffalo News columnist Donn Esmonde recently. That sort of sharing, say privacy advocates, is too much. Users of websites like Facebook and YouTube wish that the companies running the sites would make their data sharing policies more transparent and offer clearer ways to opt out of data sharing schemes. “The consequences of being open with our personal information are dangerous as we further lose more of our personal freedoms,” these privacy advocates say.

Of those who have fewer privacy expectations online, their opinion is typically based on the wealth of free online products and services (like most of Google’s offerings) we help ourselves to on a daily basis. Because they’re free, these people say, our expectation for privacy should be low. “After all, the services are free,” said Forbes contributor Scott Goodson in a recent article about Google, “so surely we should understand they come at a price?” What is the price? Google and other free sites gather as much data as possible about you to better target advertising — a major source of income for such providers — at you. Additionally, this group also points out the information that retailers, credit card companies, utilities, and other businesses collect on us without too much public complaint. “Our privacy has long been in short supply,” they argue, “so why the outcry now?”

Regardless of which side of the argument you take, the realization should be that addressing online privacy is not a black and white issue. While we should have some expectation of privacy, especially with services we pay for, how reasonable is it to lose some of our privacy when using free online services? Where do we draw the line when it comes to how much of our personal data and online history is distributed and used?

That said, here are five ways to better protect your personal data online, or at least limit what gets passed on to others:

1. Make sure you’re not logged in to a Google service before using Google’s search engine. This won’t completely prevent your web surfing and usage habits from being tracked. Rather, Google will track you by your computer’s slightly more anonymous numeric Internet address, often called an IP address.

2. Check the privacy settings on your social media accounts from time to time as policies change frequently. Facebook is notorious for constantly changing not only how your data is displayed, but also how private it remains. As of this writing, you can verify your Facebook privacy settings by clicking the drop-down arrow in the top toolbar and selecting “Privacy Settings.” Other sites like LinkedIn and Twitter have similar ways of checking this.

3. Be careful with the “helpful” password saving features inherent in many browsers, especially when using a public computer or device. Before you use the browser on a public computer, make sure the password saving feature is disabled. Otherwise, you risk making more information than you intend available to others who may use the device.

4. It requires a little effort, but if you’re willing, install a browser extension like Ghostery. Once installed and configured, Ghostery will detect and block those tracking tools you don’t wish website owners to be using on you while you surf the Internet.

5. Support the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and learn about the new technologies that threaten to disrupt your online privacy.

Further reading:

Key issues about Google’s recent privacy policy changes
“More privacy” opinion: How to Get Privacy Right
“Less privacy” opinion: Being Tracked by Google Isn’t Bad—It’s Actually Good

Photo via DonkeyHotey, Flickr Creative Commons