Online privacy: the information you didn’t realize you were sharing (and how to remove it)

We are sharing increasing amounts of information about ourselves on the internet with our friends and family, but how much of that information is actually being shared with advertisers or strangers?

Online privacy is an important topic of discussion in the age of social networks and geolocation services. A topic that should be raised with your friends and family (and followers).

A study conducted by researchers at the University of California, Berkeley and the University of Pennsylvania and published on April 14 showed that more than 90 percent of people believed that there should be a law that requires websites and advertising companies to delete all stored information about an individual. Almost 70 percent said there should be a law that gives people the right to know everything that a website knows about them.

Sites like Twitter, Facebook and Google are encouraging people to share their information with the world, making them part of the ever-expanding social web - where your online connections frame your everyday life.

Consumers are finding it more and more difficult to understand the complicated privacy policies and are often unaware that the information they thought they were sharing with their friends is actually being shared with anyone on the internet who cares to take a peek.

The most obvious and effective way of keeping your information safe and free from prying eyes is to avoid joining social networks like Facebook and Twitter, and to refrain from logging into sites like Google when you search.

But for most of us, that is not an option. Our lives are defined by our search history, our updates, the photos we post, our "check-ins" to the coolest locations, our long lists of likes and dislikes, and our filtering and sharing of the great (and not so great) content we find on the web.

If it's not on Facebook, it didn't happen says the generation of web-savvy teens that have made the internet such a big part of their lives they can't even go 24 hours without connecting.

The most important part of online privacy is being aware of what you are sharing with others. You might be surprised to find out how much of your personal information is freely available on the web. You can find out by simply searching for your name in a search engine.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) has written a 12-step guide to protecting your online privacy. The guide explains how to make sure you are not "shedding" your personal details online and provides handy tips about configuring your web browser preferences, setting up "clean" email addresses, and common sense tips about staying safe (and private) on the web.

A developer named Ka-Ping Yee has developed an online tool that will help you to see what information you are publicly sharing about yourself on Facebook. Technology blog Gigaom has posted a guide that shows you how to use Ka-Ping Yee's Facebook tool (see links at the bottom of the article).

To revise your Facebook privacy settings have a look at All Facebook's Privacy Guide. It will show you how to avoid embarrassing wall posts, make your contact information private, control what information applications can access and stop other people from being able to see your photos.

You can also edit your privacy options for Facebook's New Instant Personalization by following Librarian by Day's guide on how to opt out of sharing your Facebook information with third party sites.

We are moving towards an internet that is more connected and tailored to our desires than ever before - a web that automatically filters the overwhelming amount of meaningless content to deliver a personalized experience. Which can be a good thing.

We must be aware, however, that to achieve this companies will require more and more information about us. As consumers we will be coerced into sharing more information about ourselves than ever before.

The websites you visit will know who you are friends with, which bands you like, what you put into your shopping baskets, where you live, and will have already seen that embarrassing picture your mates posted of you after a hard night last week. Welcome to the future.

Helpful links to help you stay on top of your online privacy

The University of California, Berkeley's study on young adults' attitudes towards information privacy: http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1589864

EFF's 12 step online privacy guide: http://www.eff.org/wp/effs-top-12-ways-protect-your-online-privacy

Ka-Ping Yee's Facebook API tool: http://zesty.ca/facebook/

Gigaom's guide to using Ka-Ping Yee's tool: http://gigaom.com/2010/04/27/want-to-know-what-to-know-what-facebook-is-saying-about-you-try-this-tool/

All Facebook's Facebook privacy guide: http://www.allfacebook.com/2009/12/facebook-privacy-new/

Librarian by Day's guide to opting out of Facebook's new Instant Personalization: http://librarianbyday.net/2010/04/protect-your-privacy-opt-out-of-facebooks-new-instant-personalization-yes-you-have-to-opt-out/

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