There is a misconception among many web users that, having once accessed and tweaked their privacy settings, they no longer have to think about such matters ever again. The reality is that this couldn’t be further from the truth and anybody who wishes to use a range of online services (social networks, browsers, shopping websites etc) needs to develop the habit of doing an annual privacy sweep if they wish to stay aware (and in control of) how their data can and can’t be used.
The problem for web users is that these days we do a lot of stuff online – and most of this activity generates lots of valuable data which various marketers and corporations are very keen on using so they can be more successful at selling you their products.
This is the first key point worth digesting: we are not only talking about Facebook here but instead any web service that collects personalized data about you, whether it’s your Amazon account or your Chrome browser. All of these services require some management if you wish to restrict to any extent how your data can be used.
The second key point is that all of these services have very fluid privacy developments that mean users cannot take for granted that new features and settings have not been introduced since their last privacy settings check.
Now obviously most of us don’t have time to monitor the developments of multiple 100-page privacy policies on a daily basis nor to constantly tinker with our account settings, so some sort of workable compromise solution is required. I would recommend something along the lines of an annual ‘privacy audit’ – a quick check of the privacy settings for all your main web services and accounts. Developing this habit will put you in good stead for an increasingly connected future in which more and more of our lives are recorded and preserved online – and the question of how this data is used becomes ever more crucial.
After all, Facebook and Google have recently changed how much of your profile data will be visible to public search; Facebook recently announced the launch of auto-playing video ads in users’ timelines; as a registered Google user, your name and face can now be used in adverts for products you’ve endorsed. These are just some of the most recent changes of the past few months which affect users’ privacy with regard to their data and which illustrate the need for a regular check of exactly what your current settings might be.
This ‘privacy audit’ habit should form part of what I would consider a basic level of web literacy which all users should have in order to avoid being vulnerable to being duped or exploited on the web out of ignorance about how the services they use actually affect their online privacy. This is a key component of what we should be teaching all new web users, whether we are speaking about elderly generations coming online for the first time or even kids and teenagers growing up with the web in an age when a lack of online privacy is increasingly normalized.
So, if this sounds like a good idea to you, stick it in your calendar – maybe it can be the first digital activity of your new year, starting 2014 with a better understanding of what web companies would like to do with your data and how you can negotiate your settings to find a satisfactory compromise. In years to come, you’ll be grateful that you developed an early awareness of managing this aspect of your online life.