Pure Genius

Protecting your privacy -- and reputation -- online

Posting in Government

Parry Aftab, an Internet privacy expert, shares tips on safeguarding your online data -- and sheds light on the long-term consequences of this era of over sharing.

The Google Buzz privacy flap last month got me -- and, I'd suspect, many others -- a bit preoccupied by the concept of privacy on the Internet. The controversy over the new social networking tool, which initially made public some email contacts of Gmail users, proved just how little we control our information -- and information about us -- online. Sure, our data might be hidden behind a password or our status updates available only to "friends," but can we feel secure that anything on the Internet is truly private?

Last week, I called attorney Parry Aftab, an expert on Internet privacy issues, to talk about how we can protect our privacy online -- and about the potential consequences of this era of over sharing.

How has privacy on the Internet evolved?

In the early days, we were more worried about information that we had taken from us without our knowledge -- the spyware, adware, hacking. Now the biggest concern, I think, is information we share willingly -- although unwittingly -- with others that allows them to know a lot more about us than they have any business knowing.

What do you mean when you say we share information unwittingly?

We've got people who are talking about where they're going on vacation and when they're going to be away and it makes it a lot easier for any burglar who has tweeting skills to understand when the house is going to be empty. People share information about themselves that they think people are interested in without realizing that, unfortunately, lots of people are interested in it -- maybe your boss, your insurance carrier, your bank, maybe someone's looking for your job, maybe your ex. As we provide information, we make ourselves vulnerable.

What are your thoughts on the initial anger over Google Buzz? Should we be worried about companies taking liberties with our information?

Companies make mistakes all the time, and the mistakes are more communication mistakes than technology mistakes. They just don't think about how consumers or advocates or ordinary people will react when we find out they've done something that we might have let them do if they'd asked us. They need to let us understand things before they do them. A lot of these companies are so excited to come up with new technology and show how much they can do with code, they forget to ask us if we want it.

What do you encourage people to do to protect themselves from the lack of online privacy?

We've got different roles. My role as the head of a large charity that protects people on the Internet and as a privacy advocate is to out companies that are doing the wrong thing. It's the role of government and law enforcement to find them, shut them down or put them in jail. It's the role of technology providers to [not institute technologies] before letting us decide if we want them. At the same time, we need companies like the McAfee's of the world to help the services be more secure and find ways of getting security software in the hands of consumers at a price we can afford. Every individual needs to be responsible for themselves, and as parents we need to be responsible for our children and our senior parents. We need to look out for each other. If you do stupid things, bad things will happen to your data. We are expected to lock our doors. Otherwise we can't complain if somebody walks in and steals something.

What surprises you most about what people put on the Internet?

I shake my head all the time. A lot of people want everyone to be involved in what they're doing and see what they're doing and they live out loud. When it comes down to the bottom line, people talk online the way they would to a journal or a diary they used to keep locked away in their underwear drawer. They don't realize lots of people can see it. You no longer control anything you post online.

What are the long-term consequences of this culture of over sharing online? Is this the end of privacy?

I don't know that we'd call it the end of privacy. But we need to recognize that in life we have different personas. We have the face we show to a minister or a rabbi or a mullah or a priest. We have the face we show to our neighbors. We have the face we show to our kids, to our parents and grandparents. We have the face we show to our boss. The face we show to somebody we just started dating. We have all these different sides to us and we hide everything else. But you can no longer hide that. All of the parts of our lives are going to collide. Good or bad, everyone will know everything we are. If you are a cross dresser at night and a corporate lawyer during the day and a deacon at your church on Sundays, all of that's going to come together. If we play this out, we will be more authentically who we are, but that may not be a good thing. There's no chance of putting your best foot forward. There's no chance of a clean start. Your reputation will follow you everywhere.

What are your specific tips to help people decide what to post online?

Don't post anything your parents, your principal or boss, the police or predators or crooks can't see. Take a second before you post it and think about what you're saying and how it could be misinterpreted, how it could be abused. If you're posting a picture, how's your boss going to feel about the fact that you posted it when you were supposed to be home sick? And how are your kids going to feel about it? Even if you don't have them now, you will someday probably. What damage could that one thing do? There are consequences for everything.

Photo: Parry Aftab

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Christina Hernandez Sherwood

Contributing Writer

Contributing Writer Christina Hernandez Sherwood has written for the Los Angeles Times, Newsday, the Philadelphia Inquirer, Diverse: Issues in Higher Education and Columbia Journalism Review. She holds degrees from the University of Delaware and Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. She is based in New Jersey. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure