Take Control of Your Privacy Life!

When you hear that a California school district has hired a private company to monitor the social media activities in which its students engage outside of school time, do you feel relieved or squeamish?  When you learn that the National Security Administration has been collecting and monitoring millions of emails of American citizens who’ve never been associated with any hint of criminal activity, are you proud of our government’s proactive measures to protect you?  Or does the hair on the back of your neck stand up?  For most of us, it’s a little of both.

It seems we can’t tune in to an electronic device these days without hearing or seeing a report on the most recent potential invasion of our privacy by government, or private parties, or a collaboration of both, all carried out in the name of protecting us, offering us improved products and services, or otherwise making our lives better.  Each story brings renewed discussion of the age-old debate:  Where do we draw the line between, on one hand, giving out enough information to make our lives safer, happier, healthier;  and, on the other, putting ourselves at risk of becoming victims of sleazy marketers, overzealous activists, or worse?

Any lines we attempt to draw will not remain stable for the same reason that choosing where to draw them in the first place is so difficult:  At the core, this is not a legal or political decision, but a values-based decision — and as human beings, we have differing values.  The question becomes:  Where does a line best represent our overall social values?  But, as we know, that is an impossible question to answer.  As our society changes constantly, so do our collective social values.

“Slow down,” some of you are thinking.  “You’re jumping off the deep end, and I’m not so sure there’s any information about me just floating around out there that I care much about keeping private anyway.”

That’s a good point.  Why should you care?  What kind of information, or data, are we talking about here, and, assuming you’re a law-abiding, upstanding citizen, why do you care if the government or private parties have it (short of their engaging in clearly criminal activity, like credit card fraud)?

To get an idea of what kind of information we are talking about, take a few minutes to review a typical day and think about where you leave potentially revealing informational traces of yourself – these days, that will be the majority of interactions you have with any other person.  When you purchase a product or service with any kind of card, you have left a footprint that includes what you bought, how and how much you paid for it, and where.  Ditto when you swipe your store “rewards” card to receive potential discounts.  When you get on the Internet, you have left a footprint of some sort, which varies depending on where and how you accessed the Internet.  When you enter terms or a query in a search engine, you have left a footprint that could include your search terms, when you searched for them, and the links you clicked on in the results — and connect that with information collected from previous searches.  When you check out books at the library, you have left a footprint of what you checked out and when.  When you swipe a membership card to enter the gym, your employer’s parking garage, or any other facility, you leave a footprint of where you were and when.  If you drive through the downtown of a major city, it is likely that you have left a footprint of your route that day via cameras that record traffic passing through intersections.

You get the idea.  Basically, it is impossible to function in the modern world without leaving a significant trail of personal information behind you, even if you avoid “putting it out there” directly, such as through social media sites.

And why should you care if Starbucks knows that you buy a grande caramel latte every Friday, or your pharmacy has a record of every prescription you’ve ever purchased, or somewhere there’s a record of your morning commute to work every day?  These seem like relatively harmless pieces of information, and they are collected for perfectly good reasons.  Right?

Unfortunately, it’s not that simple.  It is not simple because, in the United States, we do not have over-arching laws defining who may collect what type of information and how; what they may do with it; with whom they may share it; or even whether they must tell you what they’ve collected and what they are doing with it.  In fact, our system of privacy law and industry self-regulation is very piece-meal, and citizens of one state may have greatly different rights from citizens of another — including the extent to which you do or don’t have choices over what is being or can be done with information about you.

As an individual, then, are your hands tied?  If the instances above are simply facts of modern life, should you just abandon any hope of controlling what happens to information about you?

Absolutely not!   Although you may never have complete control, you can learn how to gain greater control over your personal information.  Over the next few weeks, I will explain how personal information about you can be misused, and also share with you practical steps you can take to greatly decrease the risk of misuse.  Please share your questions, concerns, and thoughts, so that this conversation can be as valuable as possible to you and to all our readers!