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How to achieve an acceptable level of online privacy

Privacy has become a valuable and elusive commodity. On the one hand, our private information is released online whether we like it or not but on the other hand, many of us are to blame as we willingly give up our privacy in exchange for convenience when we use a navigation app such as Waze or in exchange for getting something at a discount or for free, for example. Many people have given up on privacy with the assumption that privacy is a lost cause but I think that is a mistake. I will continue to fight for my privacy and to encourage others to do the same before it truly is too late.

To achieve an acceptable level of privacy, habits need to be consciously modified until they integrate subconsciously and seamlessly into daily routines. This is a process and not an event but the payoff is well worth it. If you don’t know how much of your personal information is at stake, this won’t make sense to you so at the very least, I hope you will take a few moments to look yourself up online and to think about how a lack of privacy can negatively impact you and your family. Awareness is the first step towards achieving privacy. With that in mind, let’s move to the first point:

Know what personal information of yours can be found online and understand you will likely have information online whether you use social media or you don’t!

  • This video game android shows up in a Google search of my name

    Look yourself up online every few months on popular people directory sites and in Google so you know what others can see about you. It’s also a good idea to know what comes up for people who share your name. For example, you’ll want to know if you share a name with a criminal who people think may be you because that can cause you reputation damage and the loss of opportunities.

Remove your personal online information when possible

  • Opt out and remove yourself from as many sources of your personal information as possible. Click here for free tutorials for a few popular sites.
  • Use a reputable service to remove your information if you don’t want to do it yourself but do not assume the information has been removed until you verify it’s been removed yourself. In my experience, written confirmation of removal from a site does not always mean the information was removed appropriately.

Do not over-share on social media and the Internet

  • Do not reveal your birth year, your home address, your personal email address and anything else that may not be appropriate for a stranger to know about you and your family.

    As cute as this is to you, it's probably not cute for her when she sees this online

    This may be cute to you, but embarrassing for her

  • Be aware and considerate about the information you reveal about others online.
    • Don’t post inappropriate photos of children and other family members. See article about Austrian teenager suing her parents over embarrassing Facebook photos. Be aware that certain information is not suitable for everyone to see for a multitude of reasons.
    • When wishing friends happy birthday online, avoid reference to precise age. Keeping age private for vanity reasons is perfectly acceptable but keeping it private to reduce chances of identity theft is wise.
  • Is it worth causing jealously, sadness or envy by over-sharing the wonderful moments in your life with strangers and people who are not your friends in the real world? If you insist on doing this, then tighten up your privacy settings and make sure these posts are only going to close friends who get pleasure from knowing intimate details about you.

Do not give detailed personal information to your email providers – they will likely use your data and will even disclose that in their privacy policies

  • Create a fake birthdate if you must provide one and don’t be surprised when you discover that incorrect birthdate associated with your online information.
  • Do not provide your home address. It’s okay to leave some fields blank.

Understand what aspects of your privacy you are giving up in exchange for something else and consider holding onto your privacy instead of accepting that convenience or that gift

  • All sorts of personal information and behaviors are shared when you enter a sweepstakes or use a club card or a savings offer. Are you okay with this tradeoff?
  • Free apps access much of your data in exchange for the benefit they provide. Most people don’t read about the access and permission granted to an app when they download them to their devices but even if they do, they choose the perceived benefit over privacy because it is more important to them than the loss of their privacy. For example, see this article on Waze or read about WhatsApp’s privacy policy controversy. Be sure to apply these general concepts to any app you use now or plan to use in the future.

Do what it takes to restrict sharing of your personal information any time it’s possible to do so

  • Rather than getting bogged down with the details of privacy policies, skip to the toll free opt out number or the online address and opt out of sharing everything you can. Unless you enjoy endless credit card and marketing offers and don’t mind your data being shared, don’t procrastinate because sharing begins 30 days from the date the notice was sent.
Notice you can skip right down to the clearly marked "Limit our Sharing" portion of the privacy notice.

Notice you can skip right down to the clearly marked “Limit our Sharing” portion of the privacy notice.

Limit sharing when opening new bank or credit card accounts or when setting up new leases

  • Since most people don’t do this, it may cause some confusion but insist on it anyway.

Keep your home address private – use a work address (if appropriate) or P.O. Box when possible

  • Do not provide your home address for donations to charitable causes as many of them acknowledge you publicly (online) by name and address.
  • Do not use your home address for donations to political campaigns because you will likely find your address online along with the details of your donation.

When purchasing property, avoid using your name on Trust Deeds which are public record

  • Contact an attorney in advance to determine what makes the most sense for your needs. In addition to privacy, there are usually estate planning benefits. Options differ from state to state and examples include: Blind Trust, LLC, Living Trust, Private Asset Trust, Private Trust, Land Trust, etc.
Avoid purchasing property in your name - it's public information.

Avoid purchasing property in your name – it’s public information.

Because someone asks for personal information does not mean you need to provide it

  • To reduce identity theft risk, do not provide your Social Security Number unless it is mandatory.
    • Offer an alternative identification to utility companies, cell phone providers, landlords, property managers, doctors’ offices, hospitals, insurers, public schools, sports clubs and leagues. If they insist, and some will, you will need to make a judgment call as to how to proceed.
    • Expect to provide your Social Security Number to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), Employers, financial institutions and government funded programs such as Medicare, Workman’s Compensation, Welfare etc.

Achieving an acceptable level of privacy requires unlearning bad behaviors and thinking carefully each time you share information about yourself. It does not happen overnight, but the peace of mind you will feel when you realize you can and you have achieved success is well worth the effort.

Until next time,… stay Cyber Safe!

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