Even if you’ve never bought anything over the net, shared a social media post or signed up for an online newsletter your personal information is out there on the Internet. What’s more, information about you is changing hands behind your back without your knowledge or consent.
From government regulators to advertising bodies, from freedom of information campaigners to personal privacy advocates, powerful groups are battling over how personal information is handled in the internet age.
How personal information is controlled and handled is a matter of finding the right balance. On the one hand, your data should be protected from companies using it purely for their own purposes, on the other hand, shared personal info makes for a quick and easy user experience when people browse, share and shop online.
By knowing what types of information is held about you and how that information is used you can turn your online profile to your own advantage. You don’t have to sacrifice your privacy and you don’t have to accept just being traded like a commodity by big data broker companies.
More information is collected online than you think
Internet data brokerages start with your credit history to get a basic snapshot of who you are, where you live, and what demographic groups you belong to. Next, they combine this with personal information derived from public government records to develop an even more detailed history.
This data forms the personal consumer information baseline, but data collectors don’t stop there. In the US, information about your past insurance claims and health history may be included, as well as any criminal records and how often your cheques bounce. They even factor in where you may have rented a home or commercial space, and even which charities you donate to.
All this information is ‘crunched’ together to form profiles for very large numbers of consumers. That information is for sale to companies who want to profit from it. Personal consumer information buyers include advertisers who want to know which products you’re most likely to purchase and insurers deciding how much to charge you for a policy, among others.
As detailed as that personal profile is, personal data is getting even more sophisticated in the Internet age. Now, online behavioural tracking companies can monitor which sites you visit, what you do on those sites as well as which ads you click or ignore. Your smartphone also shows your exact whereabouts, as well as your routines and even which shops and businesses you visit.
Not only do data companies sell this information to the highest bidder, regardless of the implications to your online privacy, now several new companies are also using this information to ‘rank’ individuals’ online reputations competitively versus other people.
Why sharing some information is good
The reasons for protecting your online information are obvious, but there are also good reasons for sharing certain aspects of your personal consumer information with outside parties.
A good example is Facebook. Some 600 million users are willing to share their personal information (albeit grudgingly at times). In return, they receive the ability to get status updates from friends easily, learn about new events and products that match their declared interests and ‘likes’, as well as get in touch with long lost acquaintances.
Location based services like FourSquare offer coupons and discounts to members who “check in” to certain businesses via their smartphones, essentially trading their personal consumer information for monetary value.
It’s possible to opt out of these services by setting privacy controls to full ‘secret squirrel’ mode and never using any sites or apps that require personal information for functionality, but you’re also opting out of online content that a lot of people value. No more restaurant special offers on SquareMeal, no more using your smartphone to find nearest shop, cinema or petrol station and no more getting well priced goods and services delivered to your door.
You have to give up some degree of online privacy to benefit from all these advantages offered by social media and e-commerce, but that shouldn’t mean having to share every last detail of your personal consumer information, either.
A few steps to protect your personal information online
Until stronger privacy control measures are adopted through industry efforts or government regulation, there are a couple of steps you can take to protect your privacy and stop the unrestricted collection of your personal consumer information by third parties.
1. Opt out.
Many of the people search and data brokerage services that collect your personal information have opt out functions. Exercise some caution, though, hiding your personal information may do more than limit the number and quality of YouTube videos you can see. You may find it harder to get a loan or credit card if lenders can’t see your credit history!
2. Stay up to date
Opting out of data brokerages works, but it’s not always permanent. Because the various companies that collect and collate information about private individuals use automated systems to gather this data, a deleted listing could ‘leak’ back into existence. New information is scooped up constantly, so these data houses may re-collect information about you from third party sources, even if you haven’t added new information anywhere since opting out.
Check your listing on data brokerages periodically to make sure that they haven’t inadvertently re-listed your information as part of their routine automatic data trawling.
Alternatively, you could use an online reputation management service, like Reputation.com, which can suppress the information you don’t want shared, opting out of numerous data brokerages automatically and permanently, while presenting the right information about you in the right way. What’s more, the service automatically stays up to date, making sure that opted out information stays opted out.