4 New Ideas for Protecting Your Online Privacy

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Data Privacy Day is a reminder that we seem to rely on the Internet more with each passing hour, and that privacy settings aren't getting any simpler. Are you taking enough steps to deter stalkers and hackers?

Apparently, this is Stalking Awareness Month and this past Saturday was Data Privacy Day.

Three other things they have in common…

  1. Both were made up in the last decade.
  2. Both are about protecting yourself online.
  3. There are new studies out for each.

According to McAfee, 19 percent of Americans have met someone online who “made them feel uncomfortable through stalking, persistent emails, and other aggressive outreach attempts.” Of those, only 2 in 5 report it. They also offer some safety advice, which we’ll get to after we mention the other survey.

Microsoft’s survey, meanwhile, asked 5,000 adults how their online reputation has affected their offline opportunities. Here’s what they found

  • 56 percent don’t think about the consequences of their Internet activity
  • 14 percent say they’ve felt negative consequences because of other people’s online activity, including…
  • 21 percent were fired
  • 16 percent were not hired
  • 16 percent lost health insurance
  • 14 percent were denied admission to their preferred college
  • 15 percent were denied a mortgage

Microsoft, AT&T, Facebook, and Google are all “official partners” of Data Privacy Day. Which is kind of funny, since last year AT&T was in court over its alleged participation in warrantless wiretapping and email monitoring, this month Facebook shared your private data with a political news site, and Google just majorly changed its privacy policy.

Like McAfee’s, the Microsoft study offers some tips for staying safe. Some from both are common sense. Let’s go ahead and combine the best ones…

  1. Monitor your online reputation. Microsoft suggests you “stay vigilant and conduct your own ‘reputation report’ from time to time” by typing your own name into search engines and looking at the results. (Put it in double quotation marks to search that exact phrase.) This is what’s going to come up when other people look for you. Most people probably won’t dig through multiple pages of search results, but if you control the information of anything on that first screen of links – if they’re your personal website or Facebook page, for instance – make sure it’s up-to-date and reflects the image you want. Microsoft’s research suggests a third of us never do. For more on managing your Web identity, check out 6 Tips for Going Underground Online.
  2. Separate personal and professional identities. Microsoft says hiring managers and application reviewers might use what’s searchable about you as a factor in their decisions, and that a majority of adults take steps to keep work and private life separate. Unfortunately, many people do this by jiggering with increasingly complicated privacy settings and end up showing things they don’t want to – so for some the easiest thing to do may be to maintain separate accounts for email addresses, blogs, and social media profiles. Not sure where to draw the lines? Using Social Networking to Land a Job? 4 Things Not to Do offers some ideas.
  3. Learn about privacy settings. I just said privacy settings are complicated, but they’re also powerful. Did you know Google has a whole suite of privacy tools and instructions? You can find out everything Google knows about you, how to opt out of certain kinds of ad targeting and search personalization, and how to easily back up, transfer, and delete your data. The Facebook privacy section also has step-by-step instructions on changing its many settings, including how to preview what your profile looks like to a specific person. While these privacy guides aren’t always easy to find on the sites themselves, here’s a trick to find them through your favorite search engine. Type in or copy, “site:www.facebook.com privacy,” replacing the Web address with whoever’s stuff you’re looking for. This query will look only on that specific website for pages that mention privacy.
  4. Avoid giving out too much personally identifying information. This is the thrust of a few of McAfee’s tips, such as, “Avoid using location-based services” and “Don’t use an email address that is easy to identify.” Years ago when email was new to everybody, but several popular usernames were already taken, many would create addresses with their birth year appended to their name. johndoe1974@aol.com was not a smart address then, and certainly isn’t now. Not when there are sites such as Pipl.com that can figure out your name, age, location, address, phone number, email, or website from just one or two of these things. Having a common name like “John Doe” would give you some cover, but including the year would quickly whittle it down to the John Doe someone’s looking for information about. Maiden names and pet names are also a bad idea, because those are common password recovery questions. Don’t make the jobs of hackers and stalkers any easier by publicly posting everything about yourself.

There’s a lot to talk about when it comes to Internet security. Here are some other posts worth checking out: 5 Tips to Protect Your Identity Online, 6 Free Ways to Save Your Digital Life, and 3 Tips to Prevent Identity Theft on Social Networks.

Stacy Johnson

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