This is a guest post by editor Polina Polishchuk
As the web infiltrates commerce and social life more each day, more consumers are becoming aware that their personal information is becoming less and less personal. While some websites and applications have transparent sharing policies, stating exactly what information they will use for advertising, others aren’t so clear.
So what if one day you’re fed up? Tired of the eerie advertisements that seem to cater perfectly to your personal history, hobbies and wants? What if you want to erase your online identity with no strings attached, which brings us to the question: Once your information is on the web, does it ever really go away?
The problem with online privacy
That was the question some of the top names in tech privacy were trying to answer at Churchill Club’s “The Privacy Gap” panel on Wednesday, including Brendon Lynch, chief privacy officer at Microsoft, and Facebook’s former chief privacy officer, Chris Kelly.
“There are still people who don’t know what they’re giving up when they sign up for services,” Lynch said. “They don’t know how much value is being derived from their data.”
The general theme of the talk seemed to center around the fact that in today’s climate, there is no black and white answer concerning consumers’ online privacy. While some panelists called for major innovation in regards to online privacy – World Privacy Forum’s Pam Dixon urged that the industry needs to start looking at “privacy as a feature, not a bug” – some saw privacy as a user problem.
“If I say to a consumer, ‘I am collecting every single piece information about you but I am telling you this up front,’ and you choose to continue to use my app, that is an educated informed choice and consumers have the right to make that choice,” explained Jon Potter, president of the Application Developer’s Alliance.
The general consensus was that online privacy issues are growing and consumers’ tolerance level with companies using their private information is dwindling fast.
Even Facebook was the target of FTC privacy charges back in 2011, accusing the social networking site of deceiving their users by telling them they could keep their Facebook information private, and then allowing it to be shared and made public. They have since reached a settlement, and one of Facebook’s requirements now is to post a clear and prominent sharing notice and have users consent to having their information shared. Judging from Facebook’s over 1 billion users, most people continue to use the site despite knowing that their information is being shared and tracked.
It’s the same story with the thousands of mobile applications and other sites that share your information, essentially making your every online step traceable back to you.
These experts on privacy admit and agree that not only should there be more innovation that closes the rift between consumer privacy and sharing practices, but there also needs to be new technology surrounding deleting your data from the web.
“There needs to be an educated technological discussion about whether it’s possible to erase your data from the Internet, and what does it mean when you no longer use a website and you want to back your data out,” Potter said at the panel.
Tricks to erasing yourself from the Internet
So what can you do?
- Check out Google’s removal request tool: It allows you to ask Google to remove search results or cached content.
- Deleting accounts: When deleting accounts, you will notice that some sites simply “deactivate” it. A tip for these situations is to delete every bit of your information from these sites, then link the site to a newly-created email address, and then delete that email address (tedious, we know).
- Contact sites directly: You can also contact particular sites and companies that have your personal information and politely ask them to erase it (again, tedious).
- Do not track: AVG security software has developed a tool that allows you to opt out of tracking on most web browsers. This means that browsers like Internet Explorer, Google Chrome and Mozilla Firefox won’t be able to track your Internet behavior.
- Keep your identity protected: Remember, if you find false information, or are afraid that your data is being used fraudulently, signing up for an identity theft protection service can help notify you of any fraudulent activity concerning your identity.
If you’d still like to use the Internet while protecting your privacy, you’ll need to keep reading privacy policies and exercising your choice of whether to continue using a website or application knowing their sharing practices.
Until there is more innovation and maybe some uniformity surrounding online privacy, being aware of what you are sharing when signing up for a service is very important, as well as knowing that your personal data is extremely valuable.
The moral of the story? Once you’re on the Internet, it’s very difficult to leave.
Polina Polishchuk is a NextAdvisor editor who covers online backup, Internet fax, cloud storage, online diet programs, email marketing services, fashion clubs, online savings accounts, payday loans and online stamps services. She is a UC Berkeley graduate who currently resides in the San Francisco Bay Area. When she’s not tinkering with online services, she’s going to shows, rock climbing or eating sushi.