When it comes to privacy, I'm reminded of folks who drive to the airport without their seat belt on and then worry about the plane crashing.
Planes do crash on very rare occasions but not nearly as often as cars. And when driving, there are things you can do to increase your safety, whereas when flying, there's not much you can do to protect yourself.
Likewise, when we're online, there are things we can control and things we can't. For example, we can control the passwords we use and what we say in social media. But sometimes we're victims of other people's carelessness or malice, such as when a service or a retailer gets hacked or a government employee loses a briefcase containing a laptop with people's unencrypted personal information.
And then there are those other privacy breaches that result from deliberate policies of service providers and advertising networks to harvest user information for a variety of purposes, ranging from targeting advertising to conducting market research.
When it comes to trying to protect ourselves from companies and agencies being hacked or losing data, we're pretty much like passengers on a plane. We have to trust that the organizations we're dealing with are doing all they can but there's not a lot we can do. Obviously it makes sense to only provide personal information to trusted organizations. But when hacking victims include the likes of Sony Network, Target, Wal-Mart and universities, there isn't a lot we can do. I was reminded of this several years ago when my son got a letter from UCLA saying that the database containing his admission application had been hacked, and I was reminded again last week when I got an email from Twitter saying it had been hacked and data from 250,000 accounts -- including those of journalists like me -- may have been compromised.
While we can't prevent such attacks, we can protect ourselves to a degree. One precaution is to use strong passwords and make sure we don't use the same password for each of our accounts. I know that's hard, but there are ways to make it easier. One option is to use a password safe like RoboForm or Lastpass that will remember and enter passwords for you. They will even generate random passwords that are very hard to crack. Another option is to use the first letter of each word in a phrase that you can remember but others can't guess, and to include numbers and symbols.
By now you've heard plenty of warnings about being careful what you post on Facebook, Twitter and other social networks. But based on what I've discovered since I started using Facebook's graph search, a lot of people aren't heeding those warnings. Graph search, which is being rolled out gradually to Facebook users, enables people to search for information or pictures, including things people post to "public" and things that they make available to "friends" or friends of friends. Friends of friends can be a lot of people, when you consider that the average Facebook user has 245 friends. If each of those friends also has 245 friends, an extended network could easily exceed 6,000 people.
In my searches, I've found all sorts of things people might want to reconsider. I've also found a few things I posted and long forgot about that I decided to delete or make more private (you can change privacy settings for any post or photo at any time). Facebook's online privacy setting, which lets you choose the audience for each post, can help but it's a double-edged sword. Whatever setting you select remains in affect until you change it, which means that if you post something to the "public," the next item you post will also be public unless you remember to change it.
Still another issue are those marketing related privacy invasions like tracking cookies or online profiles. Some people are bothered by them and others accept them as the price we pay for all these great free services. I recently researched a trip to Argentina and keep seeing ads for trips to that country. It's a little creepy but at least there's a chance some of them might be relevant.
Google's (GOOG) Doubleclick and other ad networks that serve these ads swear that they're not collecting personal information. But even though I believe there's not a printed list anywhere with my name and the word Argentina, it's clear to me that there are servers out there that know something about my recent travel. Whether these ads are fair game continues to be fodder for regulators in the United States and elsewhere. In the mean time, browser makers are developing ways that you can opt out if they really bother you.
Contact Larry Magid at email@example.com. Listen for his technology chats on KCBS-AM (740) weekdays at 3:50 p.m.