Privacy. Nothing to Fear but Fear Itself. And Third Party Use of Data.

‘What do we fear could happen if we put our personal information online?’ A question I came across while researching internet privacy. Simple but brilliant, because the answer didn’t come easily to me. Like washing my hands before meals, I do it, but why?

Should I be concerned that I’ve made numerous posts on Facebook about my love of beer, my Twitter account reflects an interest in rock music, and how these leisure activities align with the professional profile I try to maintain on LinkedIn?

If I ran for Prime Minister, which I wouldn’t, what might someone turn up to incriminate me? Not that I’ve done anything terrible. That’s the thing. Fear may be rooted in how some mundane piece of information could be spun. With a little information, say that I’m an avid poker player, what horrible portrait could be drawn of me – the gambling addiction? Or my fascination with guns. (I played paint-ball war games once in 1986.)

We all have our hobbies. Many people fear that their, ahem, socially-shared, social interactions (i.e.. partying) will be frowned upon by future employers. Stories of job interviews ending in a request for Facebook passwords still float around, despite the clear invasion of privacy. Snapchat, with posts that disappear without a trace unless someone downloads them, may resolve the drunken photo-share problem. Social media is worrisome because of the foreverness of it. Can something we did years ago, that everyone’s forgotten about because it isn’t a habitual activity, come back to haunt us?

Not only can we fear the past being exhumed, there’s little to protect us from the practice of tracing our day to day web browsing activity. On average, I go to 20 different sites in a day. What does my cumulative surfing activity tell a keen marketing algorithm? The practice of tracking user activities (searches and website visits) may provide smarter observations about our tendencies than we can come up with ourselves. Is this a valuable service or an annoyance of spam and suggestive selling?

Some fears are rooted in reality. Identity theft. Credit card fraud. Or being sold something you don’t need because you’re vulnerable, like forest fire damage insurance. Don’t you feel bad for people who make a silly mistake and get caught on social media, like calling in sick to work when they aren’t, or ruining a surprise proposal or party. We all have lapses in judgement occasionally.

Privacy is a fundamental right. If I don’t want you to know ‘that’, then it’s my right to keep ‘that’ private. But often, it isn’t on web forms. How many have you filled out where a phone number is a required field even though you can’t see the need for one, but can’t place your order without it? More annoying is the site that insists you create an account, or ‘sign up’, with the requisite disclosure of personal information. I say NO to those sites because I’m convinced they get more out of me becoming a member than I do.

Most of us know it’s possible to track websites visited and location through the GPS on mobile phone. However, in one study, while 90% of a group of experienced internet users say they know what a cookie is, only 15% can actually answer questions correctly that demonstrate they really know what cookies are1. We may be vaguely aware that online actions are traceable, don’t know what does it really means, or what could someone do with the information. Facebook reportedly2 looks into browser history to target ads to users. If an organization is profiting by selling information about me, without my knowledge, that does not sound right.

Back to the original question – how much harm can be done if a company knows I’ve researched hemorrhoids, looked up recipes for grasshoppers, visited six shoe shopping sites, and watched way too many cat videos? It might be embarrassing, but it won’t ruin my love life, empty my bank accounts, or set fire to my car. Still, I’m uneasy about what’s being done with my personal information, because I don’t know what’s being done with it. I’m not alone. This study3 suggests only 28% of people in a group of about 1500 agreed with the following statement: ‘what companies know about me from my behavior online cannot hurt’.

I don’t have the answer to ‘what do I fear will happen if my personal information is online’. I don’t need to. I wash my hands, without knowing if a bacteria, virus or fungus is lurking, waiting to infect me, or how serious an infection it might cause. Similarly, I’m concerned that something sick and disabling might be done with my online personal information, so I’m cautious of what I share.

1 from Luzak, J. (2014) Privacy Notice for Dummies? Towards European Guidelines on How to Give “Clear and Comprehensive Information” on the Cookies Use in Order to Protect the Internet Users’ Right to Online Privacy J Consum Policy 37:547-559

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