Myth and Merriment

Now that the merriment of the holidays is almost over and all the new digital devices have been unwrapped, it's time for a digital privacy checkup.

Every time we hitch our lives to these digital wagons, we leave a trail of information that, for good or for ill, marks every twist and turn we take in the electronic frontier.

Although most would never think of leaving their private information lying around in the work-a-day world, people generally don't give a second thought to the privacy implications spilling from the convenience of our new digital technologies.

Some argue that people are apathetic about online privacy. But whenever a privacy "faux pas" occurs -- remember last year's brouhaha about Facebook's beacon program or the furor about the posting of AOL search terms -- it becomes clear that Americans care about online privacy.

We just don't know what we don't know.

What's worse, in place of facts, we've come to believe a number of myths about the protections of our personal information in an online world. Those myths may make us feel better, but they do nothing to guard our privacy.

So, follow along as together we bust some privacy myths in an effort to ensure maximum merriment and perhaps some caution for the year ahead.

Myth: Choosing to "opt out" of a program or service that gathers information on you immediately stops the practice and removes all your previously stored information.

Fact: Although your "opt out" decision may stop some programs or services from coming directly to you, the information-gathering process doesn't quit. For example, a company practicing behavioral advertising -- an advertising method that analyzes your online habits and sends you ads based on your likes, hobbies, favorite sports, etc. -- may stop sending car ads to your computer screen after you've opted out of its program, but that advertising company is still collecting your data to be used in any number of other ways.

Myth: As long as a Web site has a privacy policy all your data on that site is protected.

Fact: A privacy policy is not a guarantee of privacy protection. It spells out whether and how your data is protected. It may say that it will guard your privacy and not share your personal information, but it is just as likely to say: "Whatever information we glean from you while you're here is ours to do with what we will, including selling it or packaging it with other data so we can sell it."

Studies have shown that the mere presence of the words "privacy policy" on a Web site's home page is enough to convince a majority of people into thinking that their data carries some official privacy protections.

Myth: You "own" your e-mail and the government needs a judge's approval to read it.

Fact: Most people use Web-based e-mail services, which store all you have sent and received on huge servers controlled by the e-mail service provider. We can store years' worth of private messages and access them from any Internet-connected computer.

Unfortunately for privacy, current law provides a crazy quilt of standards for government access to your e-mail. Indeed, under statutes written before the World Wide Web existed, your older e-mail can be read by the government without a judge's approval and without your even knowing what is happening to your privacy.

Myth: Privacy laws protect all your online transactions from misuse by companies.

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