Myth and Merriment

Fact: The United States has no uniform consumer privacy law. Using a Web-based travel site to plan a trip? None of your itinerary is privacy protected. Use a calendar to keep your appointments? Protections for that data are ambiguous at best. We have a patchwork of laws that protect certain information, such as personal financial data, but we have no comprehensive consumer privacy law that sets a baseline of fair information practices that apply across the board.

If a company fails to abide by its explicit privacy promises, it may get in trouble with the Federal Trade Commission, but it doesn't need to make those promises in the first place. Some companies abide by a well-designed, self-administered privacy code, an important step but not a replacement for a comprehensive privacy law.

Myth: All your location data -- from cell phones to GPS-enabled devices -- is protected by privacy laws.

Fact: Cell phones and devices enabled with a Global Positioning System are relentless tracking devices, mapping (whenever turned on) everywhere you've been. This data are collected and stored by cellular providers and other companies. Indeed, there is a blossoming of social networking applications and other services that record your movements.

While you might want your friends to know where you are Saturday, government agents have little to no trouble obtaining that information, too. In addition, the government gets tracking data with no judicial approval or without showing much real justification. And in terms of marketing, with the exception of the cell phone companies, there are few rules on how the businesses that access your location data can use it or disclose it.

Myth: If you remove all those embarrassing pictures of yourself from social media sites, like Facebook or MySpace, you have nothing to worry about.

Fact: If you're hastily scrubbing questionable photos from social media sites or other online venues in a quick effort to polish your image, cleaning up your tracks may be tougher than it seems. Although your actions may remove pictures (or ranting blog posts for that matter) from immediate access by others, Internet search engine companies may still be cataloging your information in the form of a "cache," something akin to a digital snapshot, where all information lives on for at least a short time, regardless if it has been deleted or not.

Parts of your social networking profile may be visible even if you restrict access to certain photos or postings. And there's nothing stopping others from downloading and recirculating embarrassing photos of you while they still exist online.

If you insist on having a photographic record of your extracurricular activities online for all to see, at least take advantage of the privacy controls built into sites like Facebook, and the cache options available through Google and Yahoo.

Privacy on the Horizon

OK, now that I have your attention, the next step is taking action.

We need a new comprehensive, federal consumer privacy law that gives us a solid framework for making decisions about these technologies as they become more entwined with our daily lives. And we need to update the laws that define how government gains access to our personal information so that our constitutional rights are secured.

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