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How we're losing our privacy online

From personal photos circulated inadvertently on Facebook to ‘Web bugs’ that monitor our buying habits, the Internet is exposing the private us to the public more than any technology in history. Here’s why you should care – and how to avoid it.

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“Information that may be disclosed publicly for valid, great reasons in discreet bits and pieces has a whole different meaning when you begin to compile and assemble it for a purpose that is very different from the one for which it was first disclosed,” Reidenberg says.

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And these were just curious students. Imagine if it were someone snooping around the Internet who does this for a living.

“Things that 10 years ago as a private investigator I had to conduct a very, very in-depth investigation to get, people now consensually put online,” says Steven Rambam, director of Pallorium, Inc., a New York-based investigative firm. “And I mean everything” – name, address, age, religion, sexual orientation, politics, drug use, what you read, what you eat, what music you listen to.

As Mr. Rambam notes, many people willingly give out personal information. It’s just that the number of people who see it sometimes ends up being far bigger than they expected or imagined.

Consider the current “I Ching” of social contact online – Facebook. Only five years old and originally conceived as a product for college students, Facebook now has more than 250 million members worldwide and is still growing fast.

“People want to reveal, they want to be known, they want to be seen,” Mr. Niedzviecki says. At the same time, he adds, “The pendulum has swung too far toward loneliness and isolation, and we’re using, ironically in many ways, these suddenly emerging social media to try to recapture the feeling that we once had” when people lived in small towns.

Most people, to be sure, are careful about what they post on Facebook. Many are like Ayesha Aleem, a graduate student in journalism at Boston University. She lists a fair amount of personal information on her page – favorite movies and music, education and work background, e-mail and blog addresses – but she won’t put anything that someone can’t find out by simply Googling her name.

She doesn’t list her age. She doesn’t post religious or political views. No home address. No phone number. “My policy is if it’s up on the Internet, it’s public information,” she says. “You can’t blame people for accessing your information. If you don’t want that happening, don’t put it up in the first place.”

Masooma Hussain, who works with a legal advocacy group in Washington, D.C., draws a tighter line. With the increasing visibility of everyone’s profile online, she has decided to share less and less information. Nothing about her job. No phone numbers. She’s thinking of taking down the few photos she has up because it’s so easy for people to download pictures of her from another person’s profile.

“I don’t want people to have immediate access to me,” she says. “It’s a bit creepy knowing that some complete stranger may know who your family and friends are before you’ve even met the person.”