Have you ever Googled yourself?
You should. You might find some interesting information.
I found the results of an old writing test, an empty photo album and my (slow) finish time for an 8K charity race. Luckily, this year’s results were also posted, so you can see that I’ve improved. Perhaps more disturbingly, I came across some previous addresses, a list of companies I “liked” on Facebook and the value of my home. I have a hard time remembering these things, but apparently Google doesn’t.
I will not search for ways to have these facts removed. The information is not malicious, nor was it meant to destroy my reputation. If anything, the people who posted it were just trying to bolster their company image by congregating a large quantity of new content. The innocuousness of it all is part of what makes it so frustrating. It may be invasive, it may be inconsiderate, but that does not make it wrong in the eyes of the law.
Unfortunately, it is possible that I gave someone the right to post it. I am embarrassed to admit it, but at some point, I become a mindless waiver robot. I simply lost sight of who had access to my personal information. At best, I skim through online user policies. Almost every game and every app or digital mode of communication is accompanied by a long waiver form, and I don’t have the patience to read them all. Considering so many marketers advertise product convenience, it sure is complicated to get going.
Perhaps naively, I just assume businesses have the decency to keep my information private. Companies or organizations that publish race times are mildly irritating, but ultimately harmless. Those that seek out and post old home addresses, email addresses, an individual’s age and the names of relatives push privacy boundaries to a new level.
WhitePages.com is a major offender when it comes to facilitating the distribution of private information, so it deserves special attention. Like its behemoth in-print version, the free online person search offers basic facts such as an individual’s name, current address and a landline phone number. But the website also lists additional content, including age, “associated” individuals and links to affiliates that, for an extra charge, provide information about bankruptcies, liens, household members, email addresses, neighbors, background checks and more.
I have yet to send WhitePages an authorization form. The website’s content collection policy is pretty vague, and it lends itself to further questions. What social media companies (if any) work with the website? Are WhitePages employees utilizing content they themselves find on social media websites? And most importantly, how are we authorizing them to share our information?
It is unsettling to know that a public records website, social media provider or any other digital resource can publish information about you without your knowledge – especially if that information leads to unfortunate or unforeseen consequence. Posters may not realize (or consider) that some benign references can affect a person’s image or employment potential. This is particularly true of details that hint at someone’s religious beliefs, handicaps or other individual demographics.
Take age, for example. Older individuals are at a disadvantage when they seek work, and their long-term unemployment rates are higher due to preconceptions about pay expectations and understanding of technology. The Age Discrimination in Employment Act protects those aged 40 and older from discrimination in job advertisements and during the hiring decisions, but the legislation is less effective if a quick name search reveals an applicant’s age before they get the chance to interview.
The government has taken some steps to safeguard online privacy and limit accessibility to personal information. This year, President Obama unveiled a blueprint for a “Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights” which serves to clarify and standardize digital privacy policies. The bill calls for website security measures that are transparent, easy-to-access and enforceable. Furthermore, it suggests that users should have the right to update their information and prevent some personal data from being posted.
To draw up the bill, the Commerce Department will meet with companies, privacy and consumer advocates, international partners, State Attorneys General, federal criminal and civil law enforcement representatives and academics who will work together to establish model policies that can make Internet users feel more secure. Among the bill’s priorities are creating policies that give users control over the way their data is used and disclose personal information in the context within which it was provided. That way, the phone number you used in your sports blog profile won’t show up on a person search listing.
Once the policies are created, the Obama Administration plans to encourage companies, privacy advocates, consumer groups, and other relevant representatives to collaboratively enforce them. The bill will also be sent to Congress for approval, so the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and Attorneys General have the power to enforce it.
Some consumer data privacy regulations are already in place, but not all information sharing guidelines are subject to the same enforcement regulations. Federal laws ensure the privacy of health records, education, financial services and personal information about children under the age of 13, but most digital privacy policies are subject to self-regulation. The motivation behind adopting model FTC policies and honestly regulating them is the idea that a trustworthy reputation can ultimately translate into profit (and vice-versa).
I’m not sure that I trust companies with limited oversight to create and follow optimal privacy policies, but I’m also unwilling to cut myself off from the world of digital communication. (How else am I supposed to see what you’re having for lunch?) So until new laws make privacy policies legible, I will need to start forcing myself to read through the fine print. Remembering to keep private information private is a “live and learn” lesson, and I am still learning.
Paulina Haselhorst was a writer and editor for AnswersMedia and the director of content for Scholarships.com. She received her MA in history from Loyola University Chicago and a BA from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. You can contact Paulina at PaulinaHaselhorst@gmail.com.