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Is Online Privacy A Myth?

Online privacy is defined by Wikipedia as “the ability to control what information one reveals about oneself over the Internet, and to control who can access that information”. This ability to control depends on whether one actually divulges any personal information or if one can prevent others from disclosing their personal information on the internet which is easier said than done. It is almost impossible to use the internet today without disclosing one personal information or another for example when signing up for a new email account or downloading an important software on your computer. Even the so-called opt-out option provided by some internet companies operates on a “take it or leave it” basis where users can only install programs when they agree to supply their personal information.

Current technology used by these companies are relying more and more on behavioural advertising to target and profile users for sales by recording personal information when browsing. Whilst they claim that the information taken from consumers (with or without consent) is useful for marketing and sales purposes, the privacy of users are often neglected. The fact that a privacy policy is present on a particular website does not guarantee that user information will be protected and not passed to a third party.  This can be ascertained by taking a closer look at these often long and tedious policies as shown by the recent backlash of Facebook by users that caused the organisation to abandon a plan to change its privacy policy.

Unfortunately this activity is not limited to internet organisations as some employers also engage in similar activities by monitoring the internet habit of employees, while others review and retain employee email messages in their archives hence the latest EU reminder to organisations of their responsibility to ensure “basic consumer rights in terms of transparency, control and risk that are being violated”.

When using the internet, prevention and control should be paramount in our minds. The development of social media means that private information could become public knowledge without one’s consent in a matter of minutes. While little can be done to prevent certain information from being revealed, sensitive details such as birth dates, private phone numbers, residential and email addresses should not be disclosed on the internet. In addition, privacy policies should be examined carefully whenever possible before agreeing to ‘terms and conditions’. Furthermore, time should be taking to learn about developments in the software industry that relates to user-controlled privacy tools in order to assist in making better decisions about personal information and identity management.

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