Communications and Media

Do Web Site Privacy Policies Protect Your Privacy or Theirs

Handheld gadgets and social networks are all the rage these days. If you're one of the millions who use them, you may be surprised to know information about you is being collected, and sometimes shared with others. Here's what you need to know to protect yourself.

Privacy Policies

Privacy policies are used in all sorts of businesses, from banking to online shopping sites. Among other things, they explain what types of information the business collects from its customers, how that information is stored and kept safe, and with whom your information might be shared.

For instance, it's not uncommon for businesses to keep track of customers' names and addresses and purchase histories and to share some of that information with their affiliates or business partners.

As a general rule, you agree to the terms of a privacy policy by doing business with the company. This is especially true when it comes to online activities, like shopping or using social networking sites like MySpace.

New Twists

Perhaps with the increased use of handheld devices and gadgets, increased popularity of social networking sites, and technological advances, there seems to be a trend of changing privacy policies and collecting more user information. Sometimes, the changes cause some concern, too.

Facebook

Around April 2010, the popular social networking site Facebook made several changes to the site - new tools, features, etc. - and at the same time overhauled its privacy policy. In a nutshell, it made a lot of users' personal information open to the public, and some of that information may be shared with other web sites that are "pre-approved" by Facebook.

So, it's possible that, after you log on to your Facebook account and later go to one of the pre-approved sites, that site may know your name, gender, the names of your Facebook "friends," and it may even have your Facebook picture. And it gets that information without your knowledge or express consent.

For the most part, your personal information is made public by default - meaning you have to go into your preferences and manually "turn-off" Facebook's ability to share this information.

Apple

In July 2010, Apple was asked by two US Congressmen to answer some questions about its privacy policy. The Congressmen wanted to know how and why the company was collecting and using location data - information showing exactly where a particular iPhone is and when.

According to Apple, it collects this information so it can provide location-based services to its customers, like GPS maps. In the past, Apple relied on third parties, like Google Maps, for information and data. Now, the company is building its own database and uses information collected from some users' iPhones.

Also, the company claims information is collected only from customers who approve the use of location-based tools on their phones and actually use a GPS tool or "app."

Apple also explained how and why it collects "diagnostic" information on specific phones. With the user's express consent, it collects location-specific information about the phone to see, for example, if calls are "dropped" more often in specific locations.

Protect Your Information

There are some things you can do if you're worried about the collection, use, and sharing of your personal information:

  • Read the entire privacy policy. It may take some time (Facebook's policy is about 6,000 words long!), but it should explain what's being collected and how it's used
  • Check the privacy settings. For example, you can stop Apple from collecting your location data by "turning off" the location-based service, or by saying "No" when you run an application for the first time and you're asked if the app can collect your location data
  • Check the policy periodically. Normally, most businesses and web sites let their customers know when there are changes to their privacy policies. You may get a letter in the mail, an email, or a message posted on the web site itself. Re-read the policy if you get a notification
  • Ask the business or web site to tell you what information it has about you and ask them to remove anything that's inaccurate or, in your opinion, is too personal
  • Don't use the service if you don't like what information is being collected or how it's being used

If you think about it, practically everyone discloses some personal information to a business or company everyday, and probably more than once a day. We all need to realize that the information is being collected, and we need to know how it's being used and make sure it's not abused.

Questions for Your Attorney

  • Can a company sell personal information like my name and address to other businesses?
  • What happens to stored personal information when a business or web site shuts down or goes out of business?
  • How much will you charge to write a privacy policy for my small business?

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