Digital Insights

Too Much Interest in the Private Stuff?


Published: June 24, 2012

You know you’re being followed, don’t you?

Every time you activate a Web browser, conduct a Google search or visit a website, you’re being tracked.  In fact, 80 percent of the top 1,000 websites use some type of tracking tool.  It’s all to target consumers with money-making ads.

The DigitalEYE team wants to help you better understand how personal data about you is captured and shared online.  Our resident expert on this subject is DeepKnow — the Digital PrivateEYE , nom de guerre of one of our battle-tested online veterans who fights in the valiant struggle for the cyberrights — particularly the right to privacy — of all Americans who use the Internet.

Each and everyday, companies worldwide collect tons of information about our online habits, probably more than most of us realize.  In a recent MSNBC report “Who’s watching you online? FTC pushes ‘Do Not Track’ plan,contributor Herb Weisbaum discussed how unregulated “behavioral tracking” raises serious privacy concerns.

Information about the sites you visit, the things you buy and the topics you search is used to build a detailed profile about you.  In most cases, this is done without your knowledge or consent.

“The Internet has become a serious threat to our privacy,” says Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy.

By spying on you, companies can learn about your personal finances, religious beliefs, political affiliation, race, ethnic background, even health problems or sexual preferences.

So far, all this data is sliced and diced primarily with the goal of selling us stuff. That can be annoying and somewhat disconcerting, but it’s pretty benign compared with the potential misuse of that type of information when it involves hyper-sensitive matters like background checks by potential employers or efforts to determine your creditworthiness.

Facebook the Offender

Nowhere online is the issue of personal privacy and security more acute than the social networks — in particular, Facebook.

Balancing the business interests of the social networks against users’ need for privacy has always been a difficult equation.

Despite users’ wishes to retain rights to their content and privacy, they’ve already given certain rights over to Facebook by signing up in the first place.  Facebook users can’t do anything to retroactively override the privacy terms they agreed to upon joining the site.

The data is just there for the taking: Americans are alarmingly cavalier about what they post online and how much information they expose to the public.

In the June 2012 edition of Consumer Reports, the magazine took a lengthy look at this issue in an article titled Facebook & your privacy — Who sees the data you share on the biggest social network?”

According to Consumer Reports, nearly 13 million Facebook users either don’t know how to manage their privacy settings or don’t even realize the settings exist.  Only 37 percent have altered their privacy settings to control what third-party apps can “see” about them — which they have the ability to do in some cases based on the activity of a user’s friend.

You don’t even have to actually be on Facebook to be exposed.  If you visit a  Web page that has a “Like” option, Facebook knows you’ve been there — even if you don’t “like” the page.  (Best advice, use a separate browser (IE, Chrome, Firefox, Safari, etc.) for all Facebook activity.)

And here’s another fact to consider the next time you post a personal pic to Facebook:

Facebook has essentially become a worldwide photo identification database.

Facebook uses an automatic facial recognition system, called “tag suggestions,” to create a database of users’ biometric information.  If that’s not enough, on June 18 Facebook acquired facial recognition software company for an undisclosed sum.

The Wash., D.C.-baded Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) has recommended to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) the suspension of facial recognition technology deployment until adequate safeguards and privacy standards are established.  EPIC says that facial recognition is often used by strangers to determine a person’s actual identity and that this poses a risk to privacy and personal security.

Increasingly, social-network users are burdened with changes to  privacy policies that expose more data by default, putting the onus on the individual to secure his or her information.

The Obama administration wants Congress to pass a “Privacy Bill of Rights” that would require online companies to tell you what information they collect and what they will do with it.  Senators John Kerry and John McCain are crafting new digital privacy legislation that is expected to be introduced very soon.

The FTC would like to see Congress create a “Do Not Track” program that makes it easy to tell companies you do not want them to collect your personal information or browsing history.

Stay tuned…DeepKnow — the Digital PrivateEYE will be keeping you informed about the latest developments affecting your online privacy.