Go through a supermarket checkout line and swipe a savings card at the register and the powers that be behind that chain will be able to glean a lot of personal information about you and your purchasing habits. To some the simple act of allowing a store to track buying preferences is a great way to take advantage of tailored discounts. Others, however, view the profiling as a loss of privacy.
Who is right and just how important is privacy in this age of Internet, GPS and satellites is somewhat subjective. One thing that is clear, however, is that in today’s fast-paced world it is possible for others – good guys and bad alike – to learn more about individuals than ever before by tracking their activities online, through social media and through other means.
Understanding Private Information and Its Loss
Those who value their privacy might go to great lengths to protect it online and off. The kinds of information that can be gleaned by others using both legal and illegal measures these days is immense. Here are just some of the types of information others can track:
- Bank accounts
- Full legal names
- Date of birth
- Social Security numbers
- Credit card numbers
This private information technically becomes compromised whenever it is knowingly given out to another person or entity. It can also be seized by others using less-than-legal methods.
Privacy leaks may include, but are certainly not limited to:
- Identity theft – This is the most nefarious type of privacy leak. When a person’s identity is compromised the criminal element has gained access to highly personal identifying information such as a Social Security number, bank account number, address, telephone number, date of birth and so on. When this type of information falls into the hands of the wrong people, a victim’s identity and credit can be hijacked.
- Data leaks – When computers, smartphones, laptops and other devices with Internet access are used to process, store and share information, that data can become vulnerable to prying eyes. Hackers can hijack computers for their own personal use by employing spy bots and botnets. Email accounts and the private correspondence they contain can be compromised. Social media sharing can give others greater insights into an individual’s life than that person might be willing to share.
Personal information that can be compromised for illegal use is given out knowingly during the course of such normal, daily activities as:
- Signing up for rewards programs: Take advantage of the grocery store’s discount card program and chances are such information as name, address, email address, telephone number and date of birth (at the very least) will have to be shared. These bits of information might not seem like much, but when coupled with a purchase tracking system, the data can tell a retailer a lot about a particular customer’s private preferences.
- Signing up for toll road fast pass programs: Drivers who use the fast-pass lanes with transponders on toll roads open themselves and their vehicles up for tracking by government agencies.
- Signing up for services: Visit a doctor or dentist, sign up for cable television, perform just about any ordinary transaction in today’s world and some sort of exchange of personal information is likely to occur and will likely be required.
When Privacy Loss Becomes a Problem
It is impossible to maintain complete control over personal information in this day and age. Schools, hospitals, employers and other legitimate operations simply must have basic data about a person to process information required to perform services or even allow payroll to go through. In most cases, personal data collected by legitimate companies and government agencies is highly protected from anything other than official use. Sometimes, however, even the best-protected data becomes compromised.
Recent news reports shed light on just how savvy hackers happen to be at cracking security to glean the information they are after. Firms such as LexisNexis, Dun & Bradstreet and even Adobe have all been hit by hackers in the recent past. In Adobe’s case, 3 million users had their account data compromised during a security breach.
Protecting Personal Privacy
While it’s not likely anyone can completely protect their personal information or avoid sharing it all together, there are steps that can be taken to prevent it from falling into the wrong hands. Here are some measures that can help:
- Only give out personal information to known, trusted entities;
- Never give out personal information over the phone to unsolicited callers;
- Avoid sharing personal information via email;
- Only share personal information, such as credit card numbers, via secured, online sites that are operated by known, trusted entities;
- Consider using identity theft protection services that track usage of personal information to alter instantly if theft has occurred.
- FTC: How to Keep Your Personal Information Secure
- GetSafeOnline.org: Privacy
- Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF): EFF’s Top 12 Ways to Protect Your Online Privacy
- USA.GOV: Protect Your Privacy
- The New York Times: Upending Anonymity, These Days the Web Unmasks Everyone
- The Yale Tribune: Internet privacy matters
- Office of Information Technology of NC State University: Top Tips to Protect Your Privacy and Data (PDF)