International Data Privacy Day came and went last weekend and I’m going to hazard a guess that you didn’t really notice.
In fact, I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that instead of observing it, you posted another photo or two (or 40 or 100) to Facebook. Or maybe you tweeted about what you ate for lunch that day. Or you uploaded yet another confidential work document to Google Docs.
As we and our information become ever more commoditized by Facebook, Twitter, Google and their ilk, privacy seems to be going out of style.
Heck, with an historic IPO looming, Facebook’s about to dig into us even deeper with another $10 billion or so of funding.
These guys get it: we are an incredible source of value to advertisers. And when provided a soapbox, we won’t hesitate to flash our undies at them.
This is despite that fact that Canada’s privacy commissioner, Jennifer Stoddart, works tirelessly to protect our interests and educate us on our too-frequent ignominies. She regularly does battle with Facebook and Google on our behalf.
Just last week, in fact, Stoddart’s office released a set of tools to help young Internet users and their adult counterparts learn how to protect their privacy online.
If you’ve got kids, or work with them, this package is a must-download and an invaluable resource. Go to www.youthprivacy.ca to check it out.
There’s a video (the preachiness of which is only somewhat diminished by its teenaged narrator), a PowerPoint presentation, a guide for teachers and parents, and a list of quick tips on discussing social media and privacy with kids.
Even if you don’t have kids, its a set of information that’s worth checking out, because it poses some common-sense strategies for managing your “online rep”.
The entire package hinges on the message that, in essence, there is no such thing as privacy online. No social media platform commits to protecting your information. In fact, they all reserve the right to repurpose anything you post.
The privacy commissioner’s message focuses on teens using social media.
But the same concerns apply to almost any free online resource you use.
If you regularly post information into Google Docs or Gmail, for example, your exposure to risk is the same as the kids on Facebook.
Google is currently making every effort to put a positive spin on the fact that they’re soon amalgamating their multitudinous privacy policies into One That Shall Rule Them All.
But the fact will remain: Google only lets you use their services for free so that they can analyze and resell your stuff. And, like Facebook, they reserve the right to do whatever they want with anything you post to any of their services.
This includes documents you attach to messages in Gmail, the content of messages in Google Chat, and anything you upload into Google Docs.
Even if you don’t use a Google service, however, you may be exposing yourself to this risk if you regularly correspond with people who do. If you send private or confidential information to someone who uses a Gmail address, for example, that stuff is suddenly subject to Google’s policies and terms. And then it’s not so confidential, nor so private anymore.
So what’s an internet user to do? Is there anywhere safe to go?
I feel kind of funny writing this, but you might consider heading over to Microsoft’s side of the Internet. The terms of their Live services, including Hotmail, are explicit about leaving information ownership with the user and make no claim to re-using or reselling it at all.
So paying for it might be the best way to go.
Instead of using Google’s free collaboration tools, for example, I happily pay for a service called Basecamp from 37Signals. It’s not only better, but because there’s a monthly fee to use it, 37Signals doesn’t have to resell my content to make a dime.
I pay for my email service, too. That may strike you as odd, perverse even, in this day and age. But by paying for it, I can be certain of the confidentiality of my correspondence.
Another good paid option is, again, Microsoft. Their Office 365 online suite is comprehensive, affordable, compatible with the desktop Office suite, and privacy-safe.
With social media, though, it is what it is. If you must use Facebook or Twitter, educate yourself and adopt the strategies that the privacy commissioner’s package recommends. Become aware of your online brand, or “rep,” and conduct yourself with the knowledge that you’re not so much socializing on social media as you are self-promoting.
Oh, and don’t forget that you’re also publishing directly into the advertiser grist mill.
Then mark the next International Data Privacy Day on your calendar: Monday, January 28, 2013. Plan to spend it disconnected from the Internet, reflecting on what privacy means – and is worth – to you.
Andrew Robulack is a writer and consultant specializing in technology and the Internet.