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Home  /  geekspeak  /  Privacy online: A quick primer

Privacy online: A quick primer

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One of the ongoing themes of the Internet age has been the question of privacy, and how to maintain it in an increasingly online world. It’s something that’s come to the fore recently with a lot of concern over the way that Facebook uses and utilises the data put into it, whether it’s simply making those details public for the world to see, or selling complex analytical information on to advertisers. It’s driven some people to deliberately abandon Facebook altogether, although undeniably not quite as many as the protest movement might have liked.

Online privacy is a complex and undoubtedly touchy subject, if only because it means different things to different people. An eight year old’s understanding of privacy is quite different to an eighteen year old’s, and even more removed from that of an eighty year old’s, for that matter. Some folk are naturally extroverted, while others sit at home frantically wrapping tin foil round and round their skulls.

There are a few basic things that you should keep in mind in terms of online privacy, however.

1) Your private information is valuable

I’m not just talking credit card numbers or your mother’s maiden name here. As an example, If you’ve used social media platform Twitter and ever mentioned a hot topic — be it iPads, Justin Bieber or Arab-Israeli politics — chances are you’ll pick up a whole bunch of “interesting” followers. You might not think it, but the things you choose to chat about online reveal plenty of private information about you. Automated Twitter followers are just the thin end of the wedge. Advertisers love knowing more about you, because it allows them to send more targeted ads. Targeted ads are more likely to result in sales, which means money. Hence, your private information is valuable, and not just to you.

2) If you don’t put it up there, it’s not going up there (maybe)

This is one of those obvious-in-hindsight things. You can’t stop your house being in public view, but you can pull the curtains to stop folks peering in through the curtains. The same is true online. If you don’t post pictures to Facebook of the company party, then they’re less likely to go up there. I say less likely, because you might not be the only one with a camera, and if you share the shots someone else might get that bright idea. As such, sensitive information (whatever it might be) should be shared with the implicit understanding that you want it to remain private.

3) The Internet is forever

Just like that awesome tattoo of Guns N Roses that you figured was a great idea to get embedded on your forehead at age 18, really. Often, it’s just as “good” an idea as the tattoo might have been, but the consequences will last long beyond your initial interest in most cases.  As plenty of public figures and companies have discovered, once it’s online, chances are if there’s interest in it, it’s staying up there — somewhere. There are legal remedies for issues such as libel, but even those create a virtual paper trail drawing attention to the issue involved.

4) Keep yourself safe and secure

A well trodden path here, but one that crops up over and over again. The Internet can be great for meeting new folks, but don’t lose sight of common sense. Just as it can be used to maintain privacy, it can also be used to create a false facade. As cartoonist Peter Steiner put it all the way back in 1993, on the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/On_the_Internet,_nobody_knows_you’re_a_dog). Or a con artist, or worse. In financial matters, this means making sure any site that asks for financial or personal information is secured. Look at least for a padlock symbol in the address bar or bottom of Web pages, keep anti-virus software up to date, and do a quick Google search for the company name before committing any funds. Adding the qualifier “sucks” (or similar) may bring up customer complaints. Too many complaints? Find another online store.

For personal interactions it’s even more vital to stay safe. Not everyone online is out to get you, certainly, but some sensible actions when meeting online “friends” in real life should include only meeting in public places, and preferably in the company of an actual friend of your own. It may create some initial social awkwardness, but it beats many of the sad alternatives.

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