Just How Private is Your Online Information?

In some court documents, it was disclosed that in order to obtain evidence that an ex-employee had leaked Windows 8 information to the net. This combined with statements from the probably has many people wondering just how private their information stored in online services such as social networking, email and cloud storage is. You might just be surprised at how much of your data is actually used in one form or another.

Law Enforcement

While many might be concerned that Microsoft went over the line by searching a user’s email on an service that they own, they did actually obtain approval from the courts prior to getting the information from within that account. Pretty much any company, whether it is Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Dropbox, etc. has to provide your information if there is a court order. For instance, here is a section of Google’s talking about legal information disclose:

For legal reasons

We will share personal information with companies, organizations or individuals outside of Google if we have a good-faith belief that access, use, preservation or disclosure of the information is reasonably necessary to:

  • meet any applicable law, regulation, legal process or enforceable governmental request.
  • enforce applicable Terms of Service, including investigation of potential violations.
  • detect, prevent, or otherwise address fraud, security or technical issues.
  • protect against harm to the rights, property or safety of Google, our users or the public as required or permitted by law.

The telling piece of information in this statement is that in no way does it say that a court order, subpoena or warrant is necessary in order for the information to be disclosed. In fact, they just have to present a reasonable explanation as to why the other party needs the access. They don’t even need to be a law enforcement or government official to request that information.

The worst part of all of this though is that almost all of the companies that have your online information will not disclose to you that your information has been shared as the result of a legal request.

Many companies are now issuing transparency reports that detail how many requests for information they are receiving as a result of the NSA scandal. For instance, noted that they received nearly 25,000 requests from the government last year. The result is that people are now realizing that there are many more requests for information disclosure than they suspected.

Advertising Purposes

Now the majority of the information that you store online is scanned and cataloged for information brokers. This information is then sold by brokers in the form of demographics information. Some of this can be vague general statistics but much of that information is also tied directly to a user. Google and Facebook are both great examples of this.

First let’s look at the more direct advertising purposes. All your profile information, messages, posts, etc are scanned by the services for trends on topics, brands, etc. This information is then analyzed for the purpose of doing directed advertising to you when you are using the services. For instance, Google will tailor its search results based on your preferences. Similarly, Facebook will use it to suggest commercial accounts that you should follow or for placing ads within the news feed and timeline.

Both of the companies make no secret about this practice and they even provide information about how you can limit the use of the information by adjusting profile and privacy settings on the services. They will still use as much information as they can to target those ads. The thing is that this generally only pertains to the advertising that is directed at you. Your information is still collected in so-called anonymous aggregate information that is then used to provide details to advertisers and information brokers that then sell that information to any party that is willing to obtain it.

What You Can Do About Your Information

Sadly, there isn’t a whole lot that can be done. As long as you use the services, any information that is put on it may be shared without your knowledge. It is important for users to read any privacy policies that are posted with a service before signing up and placing your data on it. This can help you know what might be shared and to whom not to mention how you might be able to limit it. The key here is limiting the information that you do put online. Use any privacy filters that you feel will help limit the information and don’t post anything that you really don’t want others to know.

The other thing is to push for these online companies to do a better job of protecting your information and disclosing when it is being used. For instance, having a service provider notify you when your information has been shared for legal reasons. After all, they generally have to present you with any court documents before you are required to release any personal property or information on your personal property such as a computer.

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