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The Top 10 Online Privacy Threats

The Internet and other digital media have transformed global communications, commerce and communities. We have always-on, always-everywhere connectivity via computers, cell phones and other devices. But concerns over how accountable and responsive this new media society will be to its ‘netizens’ are constantly being raised. We take a look at ten of the hot issues in online privacy today and give you some tools to protect your privacy.

Behavioral targeting

Security cameraLearning about your purchase patterns and activities on the Web is essentially what behavioral marketing is about. Your Internet service provider (ISP) has access to where you go online and combined with third party cookies gathering information about your behavior, marketers have effective means to serve you targeted advertisements. According to a study commissioned by consumer privacy organization TRUSTe, 71 percent of online consumers are aware that their browsing information may be collected by a third party for advertising purposes, but 57 percent are not comfortable with advertisers using browsing history to serve ads.

Bottom line: Whether real or imaginary, the loss of privacy disturbs people. If the advertising industry would give its customers choice, control and transparency into its tracking and profiling practices they would go a long way in gaining consumer trust.

Privacy Tool: Targeted Advertising Cookie Opt-Out sets permanent opt-out cookies to stop behavioral advertising by 40 different advertising networks.

UPDATE: July 8, 2009

A group of media and marketing trade associations, including the American Association of Advertising Agencies (AAAA) and the Direct Marketing Association (DMA), has released self-regulatory principles to protect consumer privacy in ad-supported online media.  This will require advertisers to clearly inform consumers about data collection and use practices associated with online behavioral advertising and allow them to control that information. Read about it here.

Cloud computing

Cloud computing refers to the concept of huge data centers operating in a networked infrastructure collectively known as “the cloud.” In other words, stuff is stored on someone else’s server accessed via the Internet. When you store your data with programs hosted on someone else’s hardware, for instance your email and calendar on Gmail; your photos on Flickr; your online computer backup on Mozy; your health records on Microsoft’s HealthVault, the responsibility for protecting that information from hackers and internal data breaches falls into the hands of the hosting company rather than the individual user.

Bottom line: Many people think that their personal data is more secure under their own control.

Privacy Tool: Use services that are established and trustworthy, and reconsider storing any sensitive data in the cloud.


Cookies are online files that can be used for authenticating, session tracking and to set your preferences or shopping cart contents. For example, the information in a cookie might be a login ID for your online email account so you don’t have to login to each page. Some cookies are temporary and some may stay on the hard drive and be used when visiting the site again. What people object to are third party cookies used to gather consumer behavior for marketing analysis. The purpose is to profile users as they move around on various sites and deliver precise, personalized advertising as they surf the Internet. Even if anonymous, these profiles have been the subject of privacy concerns.

Bottom line: Privacy advocates suggest that consumers be alerted to how they are profiled and targeted with a full and fair description of all marketing practices, so they can control what their consumer experience will be. Browsers such as Mozilla Firefox, Internet Explorer and Opera block third party cookies if requested by the user.

Privacy Tool: BetterPrivacy is a cookie safeguard which protects from usually undeletable Flash cookies.

Online Shopping

Many consumers are reluctant to make purchases on the Internet out of fear that the personal information they provide will be misused or compromised. Well written privacy policies are essential to inform the consumer, in plain language, what will be done with their information and whether any information provided will be disclosed to third parties. Another way for a website to convey integrity and trust to users is to have the site certified by an organization that provides a seal of approval. There are many organizations currently offering seal programs in response to concerns about privacy on the Internet.

Bottom line: When shopping online, be very careful about revealing your credit card number and shipping address. Use websites that offer secure transactions and read the privacy policy for information about how the websites scramble or encrypt your personal data. Since consumers have a difficult time knowing who to complain to, all privacy policies should include a link to the FTC‘s online complaint form.

Privacy Tool: Web of Trust (WOT) warns you about risky websites that try to scam visitors, deliver malware, send spam or steal personal information. WOT’s safety ratings for over 22 million websites are based on evidence from 5 million WOT users and multiple trusted sources.


PhishingCybercriminals use “phishing,” or e-mail scams, to bait people with legitimate looking requests from what appear to be reliable sources. Banks and other financial institutions, news outlets and stores are the most usual organizations to be used in this deceit. Bad guys use sneaky social engineering with the aim to collect personal information – social security numbers, passwords and pin numbers – that can be used to access bank and credit card accounts, resulting in stolen funds and identity theft.

Bottom line: Besides the risks of spam, phishing doesn’t necessarily harm your computer, but it can do a lot of damage if it results in identity theft.

Privacy Tool: Do not give sensitive information to anyone—on the phone, in person or through email—unless you are sure that they are who they claim to be and that they should have access to the information. Phishing cases should be handled seriously and reported to local police. You can also file a report with the Anti-Phishing Working Group.

Photo and video sharing

Digital cameras and camera phone applications that can upload photos or video content directly to the web, make publishing of personal content increasingly easy. Privacy advocates are concerned because much of a user’s personal life and social environment are revealed in these multimedia collections. Integrating photo sharing within social networking communities has also provided the opportunity for tagging, annotating and linking images to the identities of the people in them. The persistence of multimedia can be problematic. Researchers found that nearly half of the social networking sites don’t immediately delete pictures when a user requests they be removed. Even after you think you have deleted a photo you can still find it in Google’s caching system which is remarkably efficient at archiving copies of web content, long after it’s removed from the web.

Bottom line: Users should be informed of the tools available to allow them to control their privacy and manage their privacy decisions over time.

Privacy Tool: Set a default privacy setting for your photos and adjust the visibility to public or private.

Social networking

Facebook girlParticipation in social networking sites has increased dramatically recently. Services such as Facebook, Twitter or Friendster have millions of members with online profiles sharing personal and sensitive information freely and publicly with vast networks of friends – and an unknown number of strangers. Risks range from identity theft, online or physical stalking to embarrassment and blackmailing.

Bottom line: Social networking users should have full knowledge of and control over any and all user data collected by the network or by any third party using its platform.

Privacy tool: Visit your profile privacy settings page and adjust the visibility of profile sections.

Spyware and adware

Applications which alter your computer’s settings, such as your browser’s home page, cause annoying pop-ups and insert advertisements into web pages are known as spyware or adware. These apps can be programs, cookies or registry entries that secretly gather information about your online activity. This class of advertising methods is considered unethical and perhaps even illegal. Often these applications are disguised as a simple service like a search bar, and some of them can be malicious, open dangerous security holes and lead to frequent crashes or hangs.

Bottom line: Make sure your operating system, browser and email software has the latest updates to plug security holes and run anti-malware scans regularly. Verify that downloads are trustworthy by using a safe surfing service like WOT.

Privacy tool: Malwarebytes’ Anti-Malware is an effective anti-malware application that successfully detects and removes malicious programs from your computer.

Web bugs

A web bug is a tiny graphic on a webpage or email message that monitors the user who is reading the page or email. Advertising networks use web bugs to collect information enabling them to build a profile around your tendencies and interests. This profile is then identified by ad network cookies which track your movements and behavior across sites.

Bottom line: There is really no way to disable or turn off web bugs. Disabling third-party cookies is the most common defense. Site owners should be clear in their privacy policies that web bugs are being used.

Privacy tool: Ghostery alerts you about the web bugs, ad networks and widgets on every page on the web

Web browsing history

Search engines gather detailed information including your entire search history and browsing habits, as well as the time, date and location of the computer submitting the search, known as the Internet Protocol (IP) addresses. This data can be personally identifiable or can be made personally identifiable. Information collected is used for marketing and consumer profiling purposes to achieve precise targeted advertising: to get the proper advertisements to the proper users. It is also used by search engines to carry out research and generate statistical usage data.

Bottom line: The collection of personally identifiable data by search engines creates several threats to consumer privacy. Since consumers are largely unaware of the monitoring of their online behavior exercising any meaningful control over the collection, retention or disclosure of their personal data is limited.

Privacy tool: Yauba is an anonymous search engine which allows allow you to search anonymously and confidentially, without passing on any private, personally identifiable information.

Final word

Studies and surveys about online privacy show that most people feel a lack of control over personal information. As awareness grows, people are demanding more information about how they are being tracked and more control over how their personal information is used. There needs to be a balance between the responsibilities and practices of online companies and the rights of the individual.

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