Privacy, People Search and Paranoia – Part 2 of 2
“Privacy is dead.” Really?
Over the past year, I’ve had countless conversations with people about online privacy (or the lack thereof). What does the vast amount of information that we put online every day mean for us as individuals and as a society? Why does it feel like nothing is private anymore? Is it generational? Is it cultural? What does it mean for getting hired or fired? How can you protect yourself in today’s VERY transparent world?
I’ve been writing, rewriting and rethinking this post since last year (yes, it’s caused me a bit of blogger’s block). Here’s what started the ball rolling: I wrote a post about how I used social media to connect and reconnect with things I care about. I received a comment expressing deep concerns about such online transparency and referencing a site called 123people.com. (This website is actually one that I list as a link on my Resources page. It aggregates both real-time and crawl search data on people. In short, when you type in a name, you get a picture of that person’s digital footprint.)
Now, 123people.com is doing what every business should: monitoring their brand online. Following the best practices of online brand monitoring — which, FYI, can be as simple as setting up a Google Alert for starters — a gentleman from 123people.com received an alert that his brand name was mentioned on my blog. Upon further review, he realized that the mention included misinformation, so he posted a follow-up comment to correct the false assertion that 123people.com purchased individuals’ private information. The presence of an information industry professional on my blog gave me the opportunity to ask some specific questions about privacy to someone from one of the very sites that are often vilified for the search/data services they provide.
The next thing I knew, I was on the phone interviewing Russel Perry, CEO of 123people.com, who was generous enough to take the time to answer my questions. What I learned during the call was eye opening and it encouraged me to read more about the topic myself.
This is, of course, an ENORMOUS discussion, so I’m just going to tackle a few points here that seem to speak most directly to major fears and concerns:
Guess What? Privacy Laws in the U.S. Do NOT Protect You.
123people.com collects information and functions differently in the European Union (EU) than it does here, as do other social networking sites and data collection organizations. This is due to one simple difference – in Europe people OWN their own data. The EU has “an independent supervisory authority devoted to protecting personal data and privacy any promoting good practice in the EU institutions and bodies.” It also has drawn up an article that directly addresses privacy concerns specifically on social networking sites. If long inter-governmental papers aren’t really your favorite read, here is a great article that breaks down the purpose of Article 29 and its implications.
What does all of this mean for Americans? Well I’m no privacy law expert, but if we want to catch up with the EU in terms of online privacy protection, we need to contact our lawmakers and tell them that this is important to us. Perhaps we can even use our social networking sites to contact others of like mind! We can tell them that in Europe a citizen has the right to his or her own data and that we want the same ownership in the U.S. There’s been some recent movement on this in regards to reforming the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA), which is from 1986 and is in need of some serious updating. But I’m not sure it stops there (if that reform even happens). Here’s a quick video on that (click here to see it on YouTube if it does not appear below)…
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly – How People Search is Actually Used
We all know that if we leave our valuables unattended in the “real” world, we open ourselves up to risk. The same is true in our online lives. We wouldn’t write our cell phone number on a bathroom stall (I hope…), so leave it off your “about me” page. If you wouldn’t put a photo from a bachelor party in a frame on your desk at work, there is no place for it on your Facebook or MySpace page either.
This being said, if you have protected yourself, a website that does a quick search of everything about you online could be as useful to you as knowing your credit score. It can be a way to monitor your online reputation.
But why would anyone but the most nefarious ever search someone else’s name, you ask? Well, “people search” can be used in beneficial ways and I’d be remiss if I didn’t provide a few scenarios:
- For Human Resources purposes
- To learn more about docs/lawyers/specialists
- By respected news organizations to find experts in various fields
- Education (research and references)
- To check into an online date (to see if Mr./Ms. Wonderful is who he/she promises to be)
You should know what is out there about you and know the source. Also remember that a name search in and of itself is not harmful.
How Can You Protect Yourself?
So what are you supposed to do until the U.S. gets with the privacy program? (And there’s no guarantee that they will!) Get educated and smarter about monitoring your important information. Check the privacy settings on all of your social networking sites. These sites provide their users with control over their information, but don’t just rely on the default settings. If you do, then political opinions, in-jokes on a friend’s wall and “funny” pictures may be open not only to your friends, but also to your networks – sharing that information with hundreds or thousands of strangers! Don’t tell people in a post when you’re about to leave your house unattended — PleaseRobMe.com recently ran an important awareness campaign about this potential risk. (Read more about LOCATIONAL PRIVACY and CONSUMER PRIVACY.)
Is Privacy Dead Or Does It Just Require More Effort?
For as much as is out there about me, with this blog and my social profiles, I still maintain a strong awareness and boundaries around my privacy. How is that? Well, I follow a few basic personal posting policy guidelines (which is not to say I don’t occasionally stray). Those personal posting policies will vary from one person to another based on one’s comfort zone with information-sharing. Bottom line: set up alerts on your name and do an occasional search on yourself to ensure that any data about you “out there” is accurate. (At least then you can correct misinformation giving you a sliver of control in an online world that may feel out of your control.)
Second, and I know it seems obvious, but enough people have gotten themselves into trouble with an inappropriate tweet or post…THINK before you POST and IF YOU DON’T WANT IT OUT THERE, DON’T POST IT! Get to know your internal editor. If you don’t have one, conjure one up if you plan to sit in front of a keyboard and type something to the masses (even if you think you’re only sharing it with a small group of friends). Want to turn off your editor? Pick up the phone or go meet for a beer. Take your unedited self offline. It’s not about pretending to be someone you’re not online, it’s about being SMART about your reputation when you’re online.
What Are You Afraid Of?
I had to ask myself this question when I decided to get on my very first social network, and then again when I decided to start blogging. Fear is not a terribly useful emotion, but it sure can be a rampant one. Education usually overpowers (and quashes) fear. Once I learned about my options and did everything within my power to protect my personal data and set up tools for monitoring my name (and my brand) online, there wasn’t much left to my fears. Hope the same holds true for you so that you can enjoy the rewards of using today’s online technology to strengthen our offline relationships.
Thanks for your time and I urge you not to be afraid, but instead, to be smart online.
A special word of thanks to Cameron Barry and Colleen Hughes for helping me edit, rewrite and (repeatedly) revise this post. I’ve sat on it for many months because it feels like such an overwhelming topic to tackle. I know this post is longer than it should be…frankly, this topic is worthy of a white paper, and if I could find a few more hours in a day, I’d be busy about turning it into one.
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