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Online Privacy: Check Yourself (Before You Wreck Yourself)

Online privacy is at worst an illusion, and at best harder to come by than ever—and it's making headlines every day. Facebook's under fire for everything from its labyrinth of confusing privacy settings to apparently banning users who want to share. Google inadvertently collected data transmitted on open Wi-Fi networks its Street View cars drove by. People search engines like Spokeo make your photo, salary, and home address accessible at the press of a button. Privacy breaches (or just obfuscated settings) are all too common among Web applications of all stripes, so the savvy surfer has to know how to safely navigate. In an online world where personalization rules, there are two main ways to protect your personal data: Be vigilant about what you publish online; and be willing to roll up your sleeves and dig into the settings area of the tools and services you use to do so.

Does it pass the spouse/boss/client/date/stalker litmus test? It may seem like only your friends will see that photo of you passed out on the kitchen floor in adult diapers on Halloween night, but when you upload it you're taking the risk of sharing it with the world. The safest way to interact online is under the assumption that everything you put in will come out—on the original site as well as in search results and on partner Web sites. Stop and do an extra gut check before you post that status update, photo, or comment, because once it's out there, it can be impossible to take it back. With aggregators, advertising partnerships, search engines, and an explosion in standards and ways for different Web services to share data, that one piece of content has legs—and show up in places you'd never expect, even if you delete it in the first place you put it.

Lean on the "Log Out" button. The best way to ensure Web sites aren't collecting information about you based on a particular identity is to log out of services like Facebook or Google when you visit other Web sites (or even clear your cookies when you do). Facebook's current partnerships with sites like IMDB and Yelp means those apps have access to your Facebook data if you stay signed into Facebook when you visit them. Google associates Web search keywords with your Google account if you're signed in when you do them. Get into the habit of logging out when you're not using a particular service.

Audit your most used web service settings. Facebook's privacy settings include over 170 options. Take the time to audit them, and make sure you're in control of what's shared and how. Your Google Account Dashboard lists all the services and data associated with your Google account—take a look to manage your privacy settings for each. For a real eye-opener, check out your Google Web Search History (and consider disabling tracking if you don't like what you see).

Firefox private browsing

Go incognito. When you do want to surf the Web without leaving tracks behind on your computer, you can—to an extent. All the major browsers (like Firefox and Chrome) offer "private browsing" modes, which, when enabled, don't save text entered into web forms, automatically delete cookies and Web history entries, and won't list any files you download in your history lists. Keep in mind private browsing mode doesn't mean that Web sites don't have access to your IP address (and general location) and that they don't save information you enter on them—they do. However, incognito mode prevents cookies from getting associated with other sites you've surfed online.

Good habits, a healthy dose of paranoia, and a willingness to dig through a Web site and your browser's settings panels are the best tools in your online privacy arsenal. How do you protect your personal details online? Let us know in the comments (now new and improved, try it!).

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  • diana

    In my experience just a few days ago, I finally got my birth mothers first and middle name.
    I researched and in 10 hours had my aunts and uncles addresses, my grandfathers obituary, my moms address and phone number.
    Very small pieces do add up very quickly.
    The littlest things can leave HUGE clues and correlate to massive amounts of information.

  • Gavin Small

    Its not just Google that knows about stuff. The EFF (Electronic Frontier Foundation) was in the news the other day about a test (panopticlick) they have been running to show that even with the best privacy options in your browser you could still be identified

  • Melvin Pereira

    Excellent post like usual Gina, Privacy is well and truly a myth.Well a couple of years ago the problem was Google, now its Facebook and all the people are going bonkers on privacy.
    Eventually the information that will be available is just the information that you chose to put Online, so I am not sure it is the best thing to do ... cry about privacy. I see you guys have got rid of Facebook Login as well :)
    There are some concerns regarding the Facebook privacy are true and those can be tweaked, I did a post about it,

  • Daniel Moskal

    I always try to imagine that surfing the Internet is like real-life meetings, parties, outdoor activities and everything where you can meet other people. I like to think of my internet activity in terms of a public speech:
    - my personal info is a speaker's presentation
    - websites I'm active are places I'd like to be associated with
    - people listed as my 'friends' or 'followers' are people I'm not afraid to show up with and etc.

    If you don't want to share your personal info don't go out(social media) and stay home.

  • NoahRobischon

    How do you handle your private information on useful photo sharing sites like flickr or picasa? That's always been a tough one for me. I want family and friends to be able to see the photos, but not have it accessible to the public at large. Yet in most cases, that requires a clicking on a confusing number of different boxes in the settings to ensure that everything is arranged properly. Any advice on which photo service I ought to use or another way to circumvent this issue?

  • Daniel Moskal

    Obviously it's a problem. Personally, I keep my private photos in traditional albums and share only those that I (and relatives) don't mind to have accessible to the public. I know it's a step back, but I simply think of the internet as a public forum where is no place for privacy.

  • Sharona Meushar

    healthy habits are indeed the best way of protecting what's left of our privacy. we should all remember that the same benefits and mechanisms we take advantage of for promoting ideas, products and opinions, are the same ones that expose our details to the world. I find it a bit strange that people are alarmed by the lack of privacy all of the sudden. It has been always relatively easy to dig up info on anyone. I know of people who maintain separate identities for 'private' and 'public' profiles, but that entails some work. Other than that, I simply avoid uploading or sharing information that can come back to haunt daniel said above here - it's a public meeting place.