got privacy?  Musings on the state of Privacy in a connected world.
January 28th is Data Privacy Day.  In a single generation, privacy concerns have shifted from worrying about who can see through your windows to who might be able to see your medical records on the Internet.  Data Privacy Day gives us a chance to reflect on these changes, and to think about what steps we can take to better control personal information and manage our privacy.

The fact is that information, from where you live to how you live, is now available to many companies that you do business with, or in some cases to everyone with an Internet connection.    This disclosure can provide many benefits, from customized offers based on purchase history to a free cup of coffee on your birthday.  Disclosure also carries risks.  Many of us have received notices telling us that our personal information has been lost or stolen, and although most of these instances do not lead to direct harm to us individually, they often cause concern.

Interestingly, the number one privacy concern that most people have is not related to the information that they share. Given the proliferation of social networking and other online activities, people are often comfortable (sometimes too comfortable) when it comes to sharing information in the public (or semi-private) domain.  The real concern for many is how information that has been shared with trusted people or organizations will be managed and protected once is out of our direct control.  Individuals can reduce this risk by limiting what they share, but we also need to take responsibility for holding organizations to their privacy policies and agreements; they are stewards of your information.

So to mark Data Privacy Day, here are 4 simple things that you can do to improve your own privacy:

1.       Think before sharing your personal information.  For example, when a shop asks for your phone number at the checkout ask why they need it.  Usually the request is because they want a number that uniquely identifies you, rather than because they plan to call you.  So, consider declining or just choose a generic number that you can remember.  Similarly, if someone asks for your birthday, then January 1st will often suffice.

2.       Always opt-out.  Unlike Europe, where you need to opt-in to consent to your data being shared, we in the U.S. have to ensure that we opt-out whenever we have the opportunity to restrict companies from sharing information with other companies or partners.  It only takes a few seconds, and restricts what can be done with your information.  Find those boxes, and tick them.

3.       Treat Social Networks like coffee shops.  If you wouldn’t talk about it in a coffee shop, don’t talk about it on Facebook or Myspace.  If you wouldn’t shout it on a street corner, don’t share it on Twitter!  Once you have shared something electronically, it is out of your control, even if you think that only your friends will be able to see it.

4.       Maintain Healthy Skepticism.  Be suspicious about any requests for personal information, even if they look like they come from a person or organization that you know.  Many people continue to be fooled by these requests.  It’s easy to take a couple of minutes to make a call and confirm that a request is genuine before providing information that could be used to commit identity theft, or cause you other problems.

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