Definition: Internet Privacy is the ability of individuals to control the flow of information and have reasonable access to data generated during a browsing session.
The Post-Privacy World in Which We Live
Privacy is a major concern for all Internet users, but it is becoming more difficult to expect a reasonable expectation of privacy online. One of the problems with Internet privacy is that many users assume that they have control over their information. This is often not the case, particularly when they engage in activities such as online social networking, which is essentially based upon sharing of personal information. There are entire industries devoted to piercing the veil of privacy. They have entire zombie armies at their disposal for both commercial and nefarious reasons. As practitioners of online reputation management we frequently help people and companies pick up the pieces after an internet privacy snafu.
The issue of Facebook privacy is often raised. According to Facebook users 'own all of the content and information' they post on Facebook. Facebook goes on to say that "When you publish content or information using the Public setting, it means that you are allowing everyone, including people off of Facebook, to access and use that information, and to associate it with you ". As hard as Facebook has worked, many people still don't understand, or use, their internet privacy functions adequately. To Facebooks' credit, they have tried. But the fact is, we just don't have time. Learning the in's and out's of privacy in todays busy world is secondary until there is a problem.
When something is posted on any website publicly, everyone has access to it. Search engines make the information even more accessible, and anyone (including internet 'bots') can copy the information and store it indefinitely. The web has become so complex, knowing and controlling the privacy settings of all of the websites a person uses has become nearly impossible. Internet privacy settings are seemingly ever-changing.
Protecting Internet Privacy
The first rule for protecting privacy on the internet is "think before you post'.
The second rule is 'check your privacy settings'. At Reputation X we advise clients to check all of their privacy settings on Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, and on their own websites. Our advice: Learn about your rights and learn about your settings. The biggest issue is Facebook, because it's one of the biggest. Facebook privacy is discussed here.
Rule three: Ask friends to understand their privacy settings and let your friends know you care about your privacy. Remember, if a friend hasn't set their privacy settings properly and they share a picture of you at that college party, all of the privacy measures you have taken won't matter. 'Friends' are often the biggest privacy leaks out there.
The Problem with Friends and Privacy
To illustrate the problem with friends sharing we often point clients to the problems others have had. Google will remove content that is sexually problematic (see this blog post about removing various kinds of information). If a person owns the copyright to an image, and posts it online, you cannot control it. But if you own the copyright, a selfie for example, you have the copyright (speak to a lawyer). But friends, especially intoxicated ones, are prolific sharers. They may have set their Facebook or Instagram settings to "public". The down-side for you is that no matter how hard you protect your own privacy, your "friends" can lay your plans to waste with a click. Take it from us, removing negative internet content is difficult and expensive.
Your privacy extends to your IP address. Every time you visit a website your IP address is logged. Your IP address tells the website (and the people that run it) approximately where you are. Have you ever gone to a shopping site and noticed it has a big message at the top that says 'We ship to (your city or state)!" They know your city or state based on your IP address.
Almost anyone can find your IP address, and with it they will know where you are. This blog post outlines how we found professional thieves by using free tools online. If we can do it, pretty much anyone else can as well.
To protect your IP address you can use a proxy service like TOR, which is to some extent described in this post on how hackers are hired. Of course the very good people at TOR will explain it much better than we can, so point your browser there and read all about it.
A web cookie is just a text file placed on your computer, usually by a website. Sometimes cookies are 'session' based meaning they only work while you are on a site. Other cookies are 'persistent' meaning they continue to exist long after you have left a site. Normally, it tracks your visits so the website knows you are a returning visitor, or what ads to show you. Internet cookies are necessary for the web to function the way we've come to expect it to, but they are also viewable by third-parties and have an impact on internet privacy. We've probably already placed a cookie on your browser, and we're probably tracking you now - but we're really nice, so don't worry about it. :-)
One of the easiest ways for people with dark purposes to begin to learn about your existence are chain emails. Because everyone has a friend that passes along jokes to an entire list of all their friends we like to use different online identities, we call them personas. This can be important because the Reply All emails often end up getting forwarded to hundreds of other friends and the email gets longer and longer. Each iteration adds more clearly visible email addresses. Eventually a spammer, web robot, or other internet opportunist receives the email. They now have the email addresses of what is essentially your personal social network. They can hijack your email address, send emails to your friends pretending they are you, and work all kinds of mischief.
Reputation management firms often advise their clients about the adequate amount of information they should make public as part of projecting a positive image.