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Are You Giving Away Your Privacy?

No, not the conspiracy stuff; something much simpler.

We rail against intrusions into our private affairs and private information and then post our private information publicly. Where's the logic in that?
Publicly posting email and phone on a "Hello my name is" badge

In the 10 years since this article was first written, things have not improved.

Too many people are still posting — explicitly posting — their private information in public places.

On one hand, we rail against the loss of privacy posed by the various online services we use and the companies behind them, not to mention concerns that various governments might be snooping inappropriately.

On the other hand, we often hand out our private information without hesitation to anyone who wanders by.

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Privacy and you

We criticize invasions of privacy yet freely share private information online, misunderstanding how public it truly is. Many people still post sensitive details publicly, exposing themselves to risks like spam and scams. Protecting personal privacy requires responsibility and a healthy dose of skepticism.

Public is very public, and often, so is private

Part of it may be a lack of understanding.

As just one example, when you respond to something on Facebook, anyone can see it. You might think it’s a direct line to only the poster, or perhaps restricted to only the poster and their “friends”, but:

  • It’s often completely public to anyone on the internet.
  • Even if it’s not, it can easily be copied and reposted publicly.

The same holds true for website comments. Here’s one example. Comments posted on Ask Leo! are not only visible to anyone who happens to come by, but they’re regularly scanned by search engines and archived by internet archive sites. Not only is what’s posted in a comment public, but once posted, it’s may never be completely removed from the internet even if it is removed from my site.

With all the controversy over internet privacy, shouldn’t we understand that public is now more public than it’s ever been? Billions of people could potentially see what you post.1

Public can have consequences

People post email addresses online all the time (and then wonder why they get spam).

Particularly with Q&A sites like Ask Leo!, some people are so desperate to get a response that they post their email address for the entire world to see in their comment. Not only will they get spam, but it’s an open invitation for scammers to know exactly what they’re looking for and then scam them with a fake solution. (I see this all the time on YouTube.)

And phone numbers? Would you put your phone number on a bathroom wall for anyone to see? Of course not. So why do people post them on blog comments and Facebook pages? I can only imagine that they’re opening themselves up to all sorts of potential abuse or harassment.

Privacy is your responsibility, too

Yes, we should be ever watchful for corporate and government abuse, without a doubt.

But privacy starts at home. Just as with malware prevention, individuals are often the weakest link in the chain.

Watch who you’re giving your information to. This goes beyond just email addresses and phone numbers. Just because a form randomly pops up asking for something doesn’t mean you have to give it (or that it has to be accurate). Use common sense. Use good judgment.

Do this

And as with so many things online, be skeptical. Keep your privacy in mind, and understand the ramifications of what and where you post.

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Podcast audio

Footnotes & References

1: No, I’m not saying billions will, I’m saying that any of the billions of people on the internet today could.

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