Home, Home in the Internet Cloud

We are in the midst of demanding times: financial crisis, war, a newly inaugurated president. And that's just the first five minutes of the evening news.

These issues rattle our personal orbits; it is understandable that other important issues drift to the margin. But it's worth remembering that it's not just our homes on Main Street that are at risk. Our "digital homesteads" are in trouble as well.

In the last decade, Americans have claimed a stake in the Internet cloud and built vast homesteads byte by byte, seeding social networks, photo sharing sites, blogs, e-mail, e-commerce and search sites with highly personal information.

The closets and trunks of our virtual homes are stuffed with virtual maps of our families, friends and associations, our personal finances, political opinions, correspondence, search terms, health data and in some cases, our real-time location.

Virtual Homesteads Don't Belong to Us

The only problem is that while the virtual homestead may feel like it "belongs" to us, it does not. The homestead, in fact, belongs to the myriad of third parties, which store our data remotely.

It's like living in a frontier mining town, where the company owns the houses, the dry goods store and the bar. The privacy of your personal information depends on the rules set by the company holding your data.

There are very few legal limitations as to how your information will be used. And just as people failed to read the fine print on their mortgage documents, few read the privacy policies that govern their virtual homesteads, and thus fail to understand whether and how their personal information will be used.

Instead, the more we use online services and store our personal information with them, the more comfortable -- the more relaxed -- we become with the idea that a third party is holding some of our most personal information.

Consumers generally remain blissfully unaware of the implications of the lack of legal protection for their digital homesteads. A Consumer's Union study in the fall of 2008 suggests that the public has an incomplete knowledge of privacy regulations at best.

High Price Paid for False Sense of Security

People are apprehensive about companies obtaining their digital information and, for the most part, they understand that the rules governing privacy are set by the online sites rather than the government.

But they rarely take actions to protect personal information collected during online transactions, even when the site offers privacy controls, giving the online industry little incentive to compete on privacy.

But we may pay a high price for this false sense of security. The fact is that the rapid technological advances of the last decade have out-distanced legal protections for our information, putting privacy at risk.

It's not just companies, which have almost a free hand over your digital homestead; the government, too, has easier access to the data we store online than it does to the personal papers in your bricks and mortar home. Current communications privacy laws are simply not up to the challenge created by dramatic changes in information technologies.

So, much of the highly personal information we place online as a result of our increasingly digital lives, has less legal protection than the grocery list scribbled in pencil on the back of an envelope and stuffed in a desk drawer in your home.

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