Ask LH: How Paranoid Should I Be About Sharing My Data?

Ask LH: How Paranoid Should I Be About Sharing My Data?

Dear Lifehacker, I understand that signing up for “free” services like Gmail and Facebook requires that I put my trust in a company and provide them with quite a bit of private personal data. I know that data is supposed to be kept private, but with the amount of information and web activity that’s tracked every day I’m started to worry. How paranoid should I be, and is there any way I can ensure my data isn’t being used in ways I don’t want? Thanks, Paranoid About Privacy

Title photo remixed from an original by Gemenacom

Dear PAP,

You’re right to be a little paranoid. When you’re offering private and personal information to a company whose first priority is to turn a profit, there’s cause for concern. That said, there’s only so much a company is legally allowed to do. Additionally, there are steps you can take to reduce the amount of tracked information so you have fewer reasons to worry.

The good news is that your personal data is your data and a company is nearly never allowed to use it without your permission. The bad news is that your permission is easily given by accepting a contract — the terms and conditions you ignore and accept by clicking a button to claim that you read them — and simply interacting with the site.

What You Can Do To Reduce How Much Companies Track You

The most important thing to remember is that you have complete control over what personal data you choose to provide to any given company. You do not have to post embarrassing photos to Facebook or shop for an erotic massager on Amazon. It’s important to be aware of the trade you’re making every time you willingly provide information with a company’s web site. You should consider each interaction like a conversation with a potentially gossipy friend. Visiting a product page on Amazon while signed in to your account can be considered the same as telling someone “I’m interested in learning more about this product.” If you want to keep any information private, simply do not share it. You have to take responsibility for what you do and do not share online.

In regards to tracking, however, you can opt out. You’ve likely heard of Do Not Track and a little about what it does. Simply put, it tells the sites you visit not to track you by adjusting your browser settings. Sometimes that’s done through an extension and sometimes through settings within the browser. (You can learn how to enable Do Not Track methods for your browser here.)

It also helps to know what information is actually being tracked so you can decide if you care. A browser extension called Ghostery can unveil the tracking methods used on most web sites. Just install it and it’ll allow you to unveil the process so you can see how you’re being tracked. You may find that your assumptions were a little off.

The Bottom Line

Browsing the internet and providing your data to companies who have no ethical obligation to you is worthy of a little paranoia, but you also have to remember that they’re providing a service you want. This is ultimately a very long discussion with several complicated issues, but it really just comes down to your personal choice. You can share as much or as little as you want. The data you provide to Facebook or Google or whomever is up to you. Your paranoia over privacy should only reach so far as what level of concern the data you choose to share actually warrants. Basically, if you think before you disclose and prevent any unwanted tracking, you’re making a reasonable effort to protect your personal privacy without giving up the “free” services you enjoy.


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  • Another good but simple tip is: READ THE USER AGREEMENT before clicking “accept”. I am constantly surprised how many people don’t bother reading what they are agreeing to.

    • Encryption is great for privacy of the data flowing along the pipeline between you and the services you are connecting to, such as your bank, PayPay, or your Google Services such as Email / Contact / Calendar etc…

      But the information seen by these services at the other end once it gets there is basically plain-text… ie: not hidden or obscured in anyway… which makes sense… otherwise how will your bank know what you want to do, or how will Google know what you want to say in your email, or PayPal know who you want to send money to.

      You certainly CAN store encrypted private information online… I have a lot of my important stuff in the cloud, that’s been pre-encrypted on my computer. But’s it’s no good to anyone but me in that form. And certainly of no use when interacting with online services.

  • Seriously?
    They have what they want already… And if you boast about how you don’t share anything – I bet your friends do – and all they need is a link between you and that friend and they can gain more about you than you think.

    I gave up making fake DOB and address’ – because the reality is, if they wanted to find out, they could, with very little effort.

    I don’t spout personal things online, but my paranoia has lowered considerably as a realisation that online privacy is an oxymoron…

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