April 29, 2013 at 4:43 PM ET
As Rebecca Martinson knows, there’s no privacy on the Internet. When a profanity-laden rant she emailed to only her Delta Gamma sorority sisters made its way onto Gawker and into viral history, she was publicly mocked and forced to resign from the sorority. But the Internet is not only a place to be humiliated. It's also a place for people or companies to pick up even more information about you. That includes your address, gender, date of birth and, with a little sleuthing, your Social Security number and credit history.
That's been made clear in a recent spate of "doxing" (document tracing) of celebrities that revealed, for example, that Microsoft CEO Bill Gates had an outstanding debt on his credit card. But none of this information comes from hacking. It's either already public or accessible by, for example, paying an online people-finding service to get a Social Security number, and then running a credit check.
Then there's all the data you pour into social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram, Foursquare and others. Now employers can fire workers for expressing opinions they don’t like, strangers can stalk you with mobile apps and college administrators can judge the quality of applicants by the number of drinking photos posted to their account.
Aleecia L. McDonald, director of privacy for the Center for Internet and Society at Stanford University, said people are grappling with the idea that their information has a secondary use.
"The issue isn’t so much that information is out there and people can see it," she said. "On Facebook, that’s the point. But it’s when that information gets used in a new and different way." [See also: That's an Order! 10 Facebook Privacy Tips from the Marines]
It's all public
Many gun owners felt that secondary use of private information when they saw an interactive map published by the Journal News of White Plains, N.Y., that listed the name and addresses of everyone in two New York state counties with a gun permit. A map listing the names, addresses, phone numbers and social media accounts of Journal News reporters, including the author of the original story, was circulated online in retaliation. At least one county refused to turn over pistol permit records, citing the possibility of “endangering citizens.”
However, the records are all public. There is no law against publishing them either in print or online, even if it makes some uncomfortable.
“I can use Zillow.com and see home prices for everything up and down the neighborhood,” McDonald said. “Sure, all that information was available at City Hall, but I wasn’t going to look it all up [in person] because that takes effort.”
When real estate search site Zillow first came out, many people were shocked at the amount of information on it — including their physical address, aerial house photos and the price paid for their homes. Last year, Zillow began listing homes going through the foreclosure process, which caused another firestorm of people looking to opt out. But all the information comes from public records. Zillow says it doesn’t list names, only properties; and it does not allow those with foreclosed property to "opt out” of being published.
Other sites, such as Arrests.org, list mug shots by state. And some local police departments are now posting photos of recent arrests on Facebook. Now with the Internet and databases, public records are easy to distribute and see.
Adi Kamdar of the Electronic Frontier Foundation cautions about the use of Facebook Graph Search, which allows users to search information from news feeds of friends and those users with settings set to public on Facebook. Now anyone can look for, for example, single women living in San Francisco who share their taste for tapas and perhaps find a phone number and email address. Who needs Match.com anymore?
Facebook has also reportedly been working for the past year on a socially ambient mobile app — one that lets you literally track people or friends via a map and GPS. While the socially ambient aspect hasn’t appeared yet, it’s expected to surface, according to Bloomberg News, likely in a new version of the Facebook Home interface.
“There’s nothing you can do in the electronic world that your boss can’t find and you can’t be fired for,” said Lewis Maltby, president of National Workrights Institute. “I got a call today from someone who got fired because he was writing short stories on his own time (online) and apparently they were a little kinky.”
Maltby, whose organization fights for human rights in the workplace, said that today, people’s futures are in peril every time their boss or college admissions office looks on the Internet. That means users shouldn’t post photos of themselves with an alcoholic drink in their hand or espouse political views, because it can lead to a value judgment.
“You can still go online and say what you want, but you’re crazy if you do,” Maltby said.
Another problem today is social networks becoming a larger part of one’s life. To comment on articles, people frequently log into a Facebook account first. Others are finding that their Google+ social account is being attached to their Gmail account and will be needed to comment on apps or games on Google Play. Google+ accounts are also used to sign into YouTube and other Google sites. Many social networks are seemingly trying to end anonymous posting.
To preserve privacy, a person would have to walk away from Google or Facebook. “It’s a trade-off to some extent,” Kamdar said. "The more these services get adopted, the more you have to think, 'My entire online presence depends on this corporation or this service I don’t want to opt into.' "
Recently Facebook Home was launched on Android devices, and many noticed that the interface logged online purchases and visits, although Facebook said that it doesn’t assign names to the information. Facebook is using customer loyalty cards' information and public records to sell to advertisers and marketers. However, Facebook Home isn’t hunting anyone down to do this; people themselves are opting to use an Android phone with the Facebook skin on it. [See also: How Facebook Home Undermines Your Security]
What you can do
Long-term solutions could be legal, regulatory or even codes of conduct for companies, said McDonald. The White House is now working on a Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights, but there is still not a working draft of the bill, according to the New York Times.
Meanwhile, users can save themselves some headaches by understanding that whatever they place online will stay online. Nothing online is temporary; instead, it's more like an Internet tattoo. Martinson’s online (and likely late-night) outburst will follow her throughout college and possibly the workforce, according to CNN.
Keep all social networks set to the highest privacy settings even if you have to manually approve follow requests.
If posting to a forum or other online database, don’t use your real name or email address (or at least one you don’t mind people seeing).
Never give out your date of birth, phone number or physical address if you can help it.
Never give out your Social Security number. Many colleges, banks, brokerage houses and other companies now have alternative login IDs to use provided you ask for one. (However, not even colleges or banks are immune to hackers, so always monitor your credit for suspicious activity.)
Remember that what you post can be seen by others. Be careful of what you say and which photos are posted because it could potentially be seen by millions of people.
“A lot of data is coming from people directly,” McDonald said. “Lock down [social media] accounts to only friends. Being more mindful is the first step we can take before looking for other solutions.”
This story was updated at 4:15 p.m. ET April 30.
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