Does Anybody Care about Online Privacy Anymore?

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Does Anybody Care about Online Privacy Anymore?

Post by shanaya on March 31st 2009, 8:21 pm

Does Anybody Care about Online Privacy Anymore?

In some ways, we as a society seem to be more concerned about privacy than ever before. We have a myriad of laws that are ostensibly aimed at protecting your privacy. If you live in the U.S., your mailbox - the physical one outside your door or at your curb - is probably cluttered up regularly with brochures disclosing the privacy policy of some credit card company, bank or other institution with which you do business. It's not that they all love plying you with paper you'll probably only glance at and throw away; they are required by law to send you that information.

We are also bombarded from every side with good advice from our local police, the FBI, and other concerned organizations, cautioning us to guard our precious social security numbers, dates of birth and other personal information as if it were gold. Then the federal government turns around and sends us correspondence that prominently displays that same information, to what's probably an unsecured mailbox out on the street because they specify that you use that address instead of a more secure P.O. box.

When social security numbers were first issued in the 1930s, the federal government assured the public that their use would be limited to one purpose: tracking and calculating contributions and retirement benefits. So much for government promises. Some states routinely used your social security number as your driver's license number, too. That meant any time you cashed a check or bought a bottle of wine or otherwise had to show your ID, you had to reveal your SSN too. Luckily, this is now prohibited by federal law, but that doesn't stop other public and private entities from using the SSN as a de facto national ID number. Just try having your electricity turned on or getting CATV or phone service without giving up those supposedly secret numbers.

Speaking of electricity, we got a letter last week from the electric company that began with this sentence: "This letter is to notify you about a data breach that may have involved your non-public personal information." Well, isn't that just dandy? The letter ends with "We take the protection of your personal information very seriously." Apparently not seriously enough. What could we have done to avoid having that personal info exposed? Not a darn thing; it's not as though you can just decide not to do business with the power company, after all.

Your credit report is a document that contains just about everything anyone needs to know to steal your identity and destroy you financially. You'd think it would be off-limits to anyone except those from which you want to buy something on credit. Not so. That same electric company that takes protection of your information so seriously checks your credit when you open an account with them, to decide whether or not you'll be required to put up a deposit. Employers check credit records when you apply for a job, on the theory that how well you handle your personal finances indicates how reliable you'll be as an employee. Insurance companies check your credit record even if you're paying cash in advance for the insurance - and charge you more for the insurance if you have a poor credit score. And the list goes on.

Some people think the right to privacy is guaranteed in the U.S. Constitution, but actually there is no explicit mention of it there. However, that right is implied in the Bill of Rights, for example by the limits on search and seizure, and several Supreme Court decisions over the years have held that privacy is a basic human right.

Of course, it's not just in regard to identity information that we've lost our privacy. In some countries, there are "crime prevention" cameras on every street corner, a la George Orwell's 1984, and the practice is rapidly spreading in the U.S. now, as well. The list of library books we check out can be turned over to law enforcement. The feds are notified if we engage in any cash transaction over $10,000 - or any other banking activity that's deemed to be "out of the ordinary." Some states have laws that allow police to arrest you for "failure to make identity known" - provide ID - even if you aren't operating a vehicle and even if there is no probable cause that you've committed a crime.

Given the deterioration of privacy out there in the "real world," is it any wonder that so many people seem to have little regard for giving up all sorts of intimate information about themselves online? Perhaps we've all given up on the whole concept of privacy. Certainly kids today have grown up with far less of it than we older folks were used to during our formative years, at least when it comes to what strangers know or can easily find out about you.

On the other hand, when I was a kid, there were plenty of people who knew a lot about you: your neighbors, your extended family, your church group. Those folks often knew more of your business than you might wish they did, but for the most part they could be trusted to do nothing with the information that was more harmful than a little gossiping. Today many people don't even know their next door neighbors' names, have never met their aunts and uncles and cousins (who may live hundreds or thousands of miles away) and if they do go to church at all, it's just to gather on Christmas and Easter with a bunch of strangers doing the same obligatory duty.

Maybe it's because of this feeling of isolation in the physical world that so many people eagerly share more than they should about themselves in the virtual one. Social networking sites are exploding in popularity and they are great tools for "connecting" and keeping in touch with all those old friends and relatives who are spread out across the country or even around the globe. They can also be useful for networking with business associates - but it's important to be careful about what you're saying and to whom you're saying it.

Some folks set up their social networking pages and open them up to the world - allowing anyone who's a member of the site to view their pages. That's okay if your objective is to meet new people, but it also means you need to be much more diligent about what you post there. Even if your page is configured to only allow your friends to see it, don't forget that what you post on their "walls" can be viewed not just by them but also by their friends (at the very least, and maybe everyone else depending on how they have the privacy settings configured on their own pages.

This was brought home to me by a couple of things I saw on Facebook last week. First a friend of mine posted something on my wall, asking me to call him at his cell number (and giving that number). I quickly deleted it from my wall to keep it from being exposed to everybody I know, many of whom he doesn't know and who have no business having his cell phone number. Then shortly after that, I saw a post on the wall of one of my friends, made by someone I didn't know, advising that he was staying at a certain hotel in a certain city and giving the room number. Did that guy really want me (and who knows how many other people) to have that information?

Something else I see a lot: people putting their entire dates of birth on their social networking sites. That's another bit of info that's handy for identity thieves to have. In fact, I have often clicked away from a registration page and refused to sign up for any web "membership" that insists on knowing my full D.O.B. Or when I'm feeling really contrarian, I'll put in that I was born in 1899 or 2006.

You might think that you could avoid the whole problem easily: just don't use social networking. But that might not be the best solution. Once upon a time, employers saw people who had MySpace sites as a little suspect. Today, we're hearing reports of companies that won't hire you if you don't have a Facebook profile. In fact, today many employers doing background checks expect to be able to use the Internet to find out more about a job candidate. Someone who turns up a blank on a web search may appear to be, at best, out of touch - and at worse, it looks as if you might be hiding something.

Oddly enough, some social networking pros say your best defense of your privacy might be to put out a lot of info about yourself out there - while being very selective about exactly what that information is. The rationale: if people find plenty of stuff to read about you, they think they're getting it all and don't feel compelled to dig harder:
http://www.wxpnews.com/0RCBJB/090331-Is-Privacy-Dead
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Re: Does Anybody Care about Online Privacy Anymore?

Post by Carl D on April 7th 2009, 8:38 pm

Interesting read. Thanks, Shawna.

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Re: Does Anybody Care about Online Privacy Anymore?

Post by Mountain Man on April 10th 2009, 10:05 pm

I find it hard to give any info out these days.
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Re: Does Anybody Care about Online Privacy Anymore?

Post by Doc on April 10th 2009, 11:33 pm

Me too, MM. I still do my banking on-line, but it's getting to the point where it really makes me nervous, even with top drawer protection.
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