The Struggle to Maintain Online Privacy

The Struggle to Maintain Online Privacy The notion that our privacy is at risk when we share information via the internet is no secret.  That’s why passwords were created, and it’s why most prudent web users are mindful of privacy concerns when using social networking sites and when making purchases online.  However, even some security savvy individuals might be surprised to learn the extent to which our personal information is tracked online.

Cookies and beacons are tiny computer files that website operators often install on users’ computers to track their browsing activity.  Sometimes these files may be harmless and perhaps even beneficial to users, as they permit operators to gauge the efficiency of their sites and to better serve users.  However, some cookies and beacons are designed specifically to track web browsing activity in order to create a profile of users’ interests and tastes.  That information is often then sold to companies that use the material to target their marketing strategies to consumers.

Some people don’t mind this kind of electronic surveillance if it results in a more efficient, targeted form of advertising tailored to an individual’s specific tastes.  However, the process has been regulated very little up to this point.  For those who do object to having their online activity tracked in this way, taking a few simple steps can go a long way to protect one’s personal information.

A First Line of Attack

Internet users can adopt several simple strategies to avoid disclosing too much personal information while online:

1.  Never reveal personal information (address, email address, telephone number, social security number, credit card number, account numbers, or any other sensitive information) online to a source that you don’t trust or to an individual you don’t know well.

2.  Educate yourself on the privacy policies of the websites you visit.  For example, most legitimate social networking sites have information available to help users protect their privacy.  They also often have various settings users can select from to maximize their protection.

3.  Utilize different usernames and passwords on different sites.  Some people believe that mixing up their passwords among social networking sites, banking sites, and email accounts is enough to keep their privacy safe.  However, if you use the same username on multiple different websites, your personal information could be at risk.

4.   Immediately delete spam.  When unsolicited or bulk emails arrive, never respond for any reason (including to be taken off their list).  And, by all means, don’t attempt to accept whatever the spammer is offering.

5.   If you have old accounts for email, online shopping, or social networking that you no longer use, close them.

6.   If privacy is of great concern for you, most web browsers’ privacy settings permit users the option to delete cookies from their computers and/or to be notified when a website tries to install a file on your hard drive.

The Advent of DNT

Several “Do Not Track” (DNT) features are now available, whereby users can opt out of the normal tracking practices employed by certain websites. For example, Mozilla Foundation, a non-profit organization devoted to promoting “openness, innovation and opportunity on the Internet” offers Firefox, a web browser that has a DNT option.  The DNT feature communicates to the websites you visit that you prefer not to have your online activity monitored.  Other browsers, including Internet Explorer and Apple’s Safari, offer similar DNT options.

That all sounds great; unfortunately, however, website operators are not legally obligated to honor these DNT requests.  Furthermore, many prominent websites, including Google and Facebook, rely heavily on the information they learn about users from their online activity.  As a result, for some companies, the interest in protecting individual privacy may be outweighed by website operators’ desire to make a profit.

What’s on the Horizon

Although some sites have sided with privacy advocates, some observers believe that relying on website operators to police themselves is unrealistic. While proponents of stricter regulation cite privacy and safety concerns for adults and children, others argue that strict DNT policies will ultimately hinder growth and innovation related to the Internet.  At present, no firm deal is in sight.  Therefore, for now, individuals concerned about protecting their personal information should approach their internet activity with caution and take careful steps to safeguard their privacy.

Christopher Wallace
Christopher Wallace is Vice President of Sales and Marketing for Amsterdam Printing, a leading provider of custom pens and other promotional products such as imprinted clothing, mugs and customized calendars.
Christopher Wallace

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