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I Surf, Therefore I am Vulnerable

Profile page at social weight-loss site. Click to view larger image.

[Editor's Note: today's post is by R. Michelle Green, a frequent guest author. She is the Principal for her company, Client Solutions, and a combination geek girl, personal organizer, and career coach. Today, she shares her experiences with with maintaining privacy online, especially at social networking sites that ask users to share health and fitness data.]

By R. Michelle Green

I recently watched a 60 Minutes report called The Data Brokers, about companies that gather our personal information from the net and sell it. If you haven’t seen it, it’s worth your time. I spent the next several minutes thinking about the information I share, and the trade-offs I know I make.

I have two Google Mail accounts, for example. I consciously work to limit its access to all of me, using different browsers for the different Gmail accounts. I don’t stay logged in if I’m not actively reading or sending emails. Google treats me differently depending on which account I’m using (check it yourself – I got different results for the same search request) so my little efforts are not wasted. I know it’s a losing battle, but I make the effort.

I am not a power Facebook user. I Liked a couple of shows, but I play no games, and resist its use for birthdays, reminders etc. The site patiently and relentlessly reminds me that my profile is only 55% complete. It’ll stay that way if I have anything to do with it. (Why do they need to know where I was born? Or my elementary school? Please…) And the very idea of using my Facebook login credentials to log into other sites makes me twitch.

My ruminations led me to identify one site with a great deal of info about me that I had not scrutinized at all. My nutritionist requires me to journal my food intake at a free online weight-loss site offering coaching, motivational support, and analytic tools. This is not meant to be a review of the site, but rather the actions I took (and DIDN’T take) in using it.

While I consider myself pretty thoughtful about my net use (I actually do read most EULAs and TOCs), I realized I’d never tried to read this site’s. Like many sites that offer more choices as you scroll down, there never seemed to be a bottom to the main page. Only through intense perseverance (i.e., holding the page down button for several seconds) did I find links to a Privacy Policy and the Terms and Conditions.

The good news – the site manages the info well. They retain it, they do not sell it, and they are careful to distinguish between Private User Generated Content (available only by log-in) and Public User Generated Content (visible on the public Community pages). Once you find one governing document, big ad sized icons lead you to the other documents that control one’s use of the site. It also encourages people to read this info, with participation points (e.g., points users can earn by participating in the site's loyalty program) available at the bottom of each agreement. They even offer advice about how to surf the internet safely.

The bad news – I didn’t see any printer friendly protocols for these agreements. Like many sites, they permit 3rd party advertisers to offer you ads targeted to the content you are posting. They do not mention specifically the names of parties with whom they share information – but doubleclick (now a Google subsidiary) is mentioned as their 3rd party advertising partner. And like many sites, even when you do have choices about how your info is used, the default skews to the site’s benefit, as the user can only opt-out after the fact. Some of you have heard about Personal Health Information (PHI) here on this blog, with articles as far back as 2011. The term is never mentioned on my site, perhaps because they are careful to say that they are not dispensing medical advice, only offering tools for users’ convenience. And those tools have helped many people live healthier and stronger lives. For free? And with the site’s assertion that even if the site is purchased by some other entity, these rules will still apply? Not too shabby.

But I should have checked all that stuff first, back in 2012.

Now I only wrote down what I ate. But even just knowing the food I eat could be descriptive of very specific illnesses or syndromes. The site is available both via browsers and mobile apps. If I really fully used the site, I could be sharing my exercise routine and location, my psychological attitudes about myself, my meals, and/or my moods, and more. The site would have access to my conversations with others on the site. It would have access to what it calls user generated content (recipes, comments on restaurants, or other activities associated with participation in the online "Community"). That’s when it starts getting scary to me.

I’ve accepted that more info than I prefer is out on the net and out of my hands, but I’m not fully abdicating control. The keys, IMHO, to negotiating the compromises required to benefit from our digital technologies?

A) Read the terms and the privacy clauses of any site or application you routinely use. Review them periodically – they can and will change them, as Facebook has demonstrated.

B) Read the manuals of the mechanisms that you use to access the 'net, be they desktops, laptops or mobile devices like tablets, smartphones, etc.

C) Know how to disable your device’s location tracking. Know what your apps are broadcasting, and what it takes to control them.

D) take advantage of the apps or software available to maximize your control and minimize 3rd party controls. The program I’m most curious about after watching the 60 Minutes report is Disconnect. This software permits you to see in real time the numerous parties watching your web interactions, and reveal what information they are gathering in the process.

E) Don’t make it easy for them! For example, don’t use your Facebook log-in to join some other site. My choice with Facebook? I log in, enjoy, and log off when I’m done. I never leave it on continually in the background. (Apparently I am congenitally immune to FOMO.)

Pew research back in 2011 noted that the more time you spend on social networking sites, the more trusting you are. (Beware confusing correlation with causation!!) Since I’m unwilling to be Travis McGee and live off the grid, I’m always looking for new tools that make my life easier. Perhaps you’ll share with me some of your favorite ways to negotiate a path between eschewing the use of the net completely, and passive ignorance about the loss of privacy.


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