online privacy

Privacy is becoming an increasingly public thing. It’s hard to turn on your television without seeing some form of reality TV. In many cases, hidden cameras record unsuspecting participants at their worst moments. It seems that cameras are everywhere. You may have a few security cameras at your place of work, and with the popularity of “front door” cameras, even an innocent stroll around the block can add your image to your neighbors’ footage. 

Even the most private person can have their privacy upended. They may end up as an entry in an online family tree such as and their mother’s maiden name becomes public knowledge (one reason to avoid mother’s maiden name as a security question). Or consider the NEST thermostat, which can tell when you’re home, when you’re sleeping and when you’re away. Or — a person’s image in a group photo gets tagged on someone else’s social media timeline. Because of artificial intelligence, one tagged photo of you can enable software to find your likeness in other posted photos. To some extent, cases like this are unavoidable, unless you want to devote a large amount of time to constantly searching for references to yourself online. The good thing is, there is a lot of data on yourself (lots more, in fact, than tagged photos) that you CAN control. The first challenge is knowing where to look.  

Virtually every app we use or website we visit collects data on us. Two of the biggest collectors of data are Google and Facebook. Google (alphabet) collects data from a network of applications — (the search activity including voice searches), Google Maps (location history), Google Play (apps you’ve searched for and/or downloaded) and YouTube (videos you’ve watched, video searches, and videos you’ve liked/saved/subscribed/commented on). If you didn’t already know this, you’ve probably built up a pretty impressive amount of data already. The good news is that once you find it, you can examine it, delete parts of it and change what gets collected in the future. Google offers a privacy checkup feature to guide you through the process of adjusting and deleting. The biggest takeaway I can leave you with: through its data and personalization settings, Google also allows you to determine who can get access to your data after death (or a specified period of inactivity) and help choose when Google will automatically delete your data. 

Facebook allows you to control who can see your posts and posts you’ve been tagged in. Do you want people to be able to search for your profile outside of Facebook? You can limit that, as well. Facebook collects information that you provide to put its users into groups: things like travel, places, event interests, hobbies and activities, as well as a number of other categories. You can also see which companies have uploaded a list that includes your personal information (email address and/or phone number). Facebook also figures certain things out about you (“Your information”), based on your activity. For example, Facebook determined my political stance, my ethnicity, and that I recently got a new mobile device. Like Google, Facebook can track locations. This ability to show where you are (and by deduction where you are not — for example, home) can potentially pose a risk to property or theft. You may find it useful to take a look at your data periodically. What I learned: I was surprised that Facebook Messenger data is retained just like any other activity.

One other source of personal information is wearable devices like Fitbits (bought recently by Google) and Apple watches. My Fitbit can determine when I am asleep, as well as how well I slept. Using a combination of motion and heart rate, it can also guess what I’m doing the rest of the day as well and, with GPS, where I am at the time. Prevention Magazine notes that devices like Fitbit now know other things about you, like whether you are pregnant or if your heart is not working right. The best advice is to minimize the amount of wearable data that you share — always set your settings to “private” if possible.

Knowing what data is out there, where it’s located and how to manage it is the best way to start keeping track and controlling your personal data. 

Nolan Taylor is a clinical assistant professor of information systems at IU Kelley School of Business at IUPUI.

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