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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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Sir John Sawers, the incoming head of Britain’s secretive spy agency, MI6, can certainly sympathize with that sentiment. In July, a British newspaper reported that Sir John’s wife put details about the family onto her Facebook page. Lady Sawers, who failed to use even basic privacy settings, disclosed the location of the couple’s apartment in London and the whereabouts of their children and his parents, making that information available to as many as a quarter-billion people. One photo showed Sir John, currently Britain’s ambassador to the United Nations, clad unflatteringly in Speedo swim trunks.

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Other private revelations on Facebook are less inadvertent and far more costly. Last fall, photos of an 18-year-old cheerleader for the New England Patriots football team appeared on Facebook that showed her posing next to a passed-out man covered in offensive graffiti, according to several news accounts. The photos apparently were taken during a Halloween party at a local college. The Patriots fired her.

Everyone has heard accounts of the college athlete who was drinking and captured on a cellphone camera, only to be kicked off the team; of the person whose private medical records inexplicably became public; of the stolen identity, like Heyman’s. These tend to be the relatively rare breaches.

Yet experts worry about ones that are far more common, even if less insidious. Consider “behavioral advertising.” It occurs when information about the online activities of people is gathered surreptitiously in order to target ads at them. One chief culprit is Web bugs, tags that track users as they move from website to website. They help compile a profile of what a person’s likes and dislikes are, which can then be sold to companies. A study at the University of California, Berkeley released in June showed that all of the top 50 most-visited websites had between 1 and 100 Web bugs embedded in them when checked over one month. Google alone had placed a Web bug on 92 of the top 100 sites.

THE QUESTION IS, HOW do we keep using the Internet while maintaining some curtain of privacy around our cyber glass house? The easiest answer would be to simply become a Luddite – don’t go online at all. But that seems impractical, even irrational, in a wired world.

In fact, some experts worry that if people become too paranoid about online privacy, it could have deleterious effects. “We need to be able to trust a bank not only with our money but with our information,” says Helen Nissenbaum, a professor of media, culture, and communication at New York University.

As a start, many people are trying to ensure some level of privacy by putting more starch in the ubiquitous “terms of service” agreements. These are the policies we regularly encounter when signing up for websites, which usually include promises of safeguarding privacy.

The problem is most people just hit “accept” and don’t read them. Those who do usually wish they didn’t. It’s as if they’re written in Urdu. Nor do the agreements always disclose the ramifications of the privacy people are giving up.

“Privacy policies are becoming longer and longer and more complex to read,” says Alessandro Acquisti, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. “They’re more to protect the company than the consumer. It’s quite sad.”