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We're putting our own privacy at risk

We are well-advised to fear governments taking away our privacy. The Conservatives’ Bill C-30, for instance, has removing your rights as its primary goal. But they’re not the only ones putting us at risk: we’re often our own worst enemies. With sites like Facebook, we’re laying ourselves bare to the world. Facebook, like many Internet sites, exist to harvest information, sell it to advertisers and target you with personalized ads. Tracking is the norm, as is collecting as many details as possible of what each of us does online. There’s nothing neutral about most of it: this is not just a sociology study, though, of course, it’s that too.

Leaving aside the issue of why exactly people feel compelled to post the up-to-the-second minutia of their lives, there’s a danger of what you post being used against you. The riotous behaviour on St. Patrick’s Day in London, for example, saw some ill-advised social-media postings – Facebook , Twitter and the like – by those involved. The police, no doubt, will find this beneficial. A similar thing happened during last year’s Stanley Cup riots in Vancouver, proving instrumental in the pursuit of vandals.

That’s an obvious peril, brought about by, well, stupidity. A less obvious risk was in the spotlight in another news report, this one having to do with employers demanding access to the Facebook pages of prospective employees. People going in for interviews are now sometimes asked for login names and passwords right on the spot so that the interviewers can poke around their online lives.

“It’s akin to requiring someone’s house keys,” says Orin Kerr in the Associate Press wire story. A George Washington University law professor and former federal prosecutor, he calls the practice “an egregious privacy violation.”

Lori Andrews, a law professor at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law specializing in Internet privacy, raises concerns about the pressure placed on applicants, even if they voluntarily provide access to social sites: “Volunteering is coercion if you need a job.”

The practice is definitely invasive, and there should be laws to protect people against it. Some states are in fact looking into the legality of such requests, much like there are some personal questions – age, marital status, racial background, etc. – that can’t be asked today.

It’s common already for prospective employers to search online for information about applicants. That’s reason enough to be very careful with what you make public about yourself … or allow others to post about you. Demanding access to private information is simply beyond the pale.

In the bigger picture, the Internet’s increasing presence in our lives means we have to set up rules that prevents abuse of technology that can track our every movement online. The marketing purposes behind much of what’s done today is a poor reason to allow it. The prospect of far more sinister motives means action is needed in short order.

To that end, the Obama administration in the U.S. has been working on the online-tracking issue. Last month, it unveiled the “Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights” as part of its blueprint to improve consumers’ privacy protections. The plan will drive efforts to give users more control over how their personal information is used on the Internet and to help businesses maintain consumer trust in the rapidly changing digital environment. The Commerce Department is charged with bringing together companies, privacy advocates and other stakeholders to develop and implement enforceable privacy policies.

Along with the privacy bill, Internet companies and online advertising networks are being asked to commit to “do not track” technology in most major web browsers to make it easier for users to control online tracking. Companies that represent the delivery of nearly 90 per cent of online behavioral advertisements, including Google, Yahoo!, Microsoft, and AOL have agreed to comply when consumers choose to control online tracking. Notable by its absence is Facebook, which has stepped up its lobbying efforts against controls even as critics decry the company’s increasingly porous privacy guidelines. Essentially, the popular online site can pretty much do whatever it wants with your information.

Founder Mark Zuckerberg argues today’s young users don’t have the privacy concerns of past generations – putting your information out there and being tracked is the norm.

“People have really gotten comfortable not only sharing more information and different kinds, but more openly and with more people. That social norm is just something that has evolved over time,” he said at tech conference in 2010.

He’s fine with tracking users, and he assumes everyone else is, too.

Aside from the issue of being treated solely as data points for advertising purposes, you should be concerned about what Internet sites do with your information. Beyond potential embarrassment and employment troubles – the result of posting your bar-hopping escapades for all to see – access to your personal details is a fraudster’s dream: two words, identity theft.
If you don’t look after your privacy, you can be sure someone else is glad you didn’t.

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