With the Internet allowing for instant exchange of information, its not surprising that many users have become concerned about the integrity of their personal information online. Online privacy protection can be approached from either an individual or institutional basis, and can be behavioral, regulatory, or technology-driven. Comprehensive privacy protection on the Internet is often a blend of these different approaches.
Regardless of where they live, individual Internet users often have the greatest amount of control over how their information is used online. Volunteering personal data on a website or social networking service can potentially open the door to identity theft and/or credit card access. In addition, many websites that offer free goods or services collect user information and sell it to marketing companies.
Adjustments to online behavior can increase help preserve a user’s Internet privacy. Privacy advocacy groups recommend against revealing personal information like full names, phone numbers, and street addresses online. Social networking sites, personal homepages, and Internet forums are often insecure, and personal information posted to these online locations can often be seen by people and search engines. Workers should also be aware that in the U.S. and in other countries, many employers monitor the Internet activity of their employees on company time or with company equipment.
Governments have also acted to enhance online privacy protection through new laws and regulatory policies. In the U.S., existing privacy laws have been reinterpreted for the digital age, with a few states enacting tougher regulations. Some countries in Europe view privacy as a basic human right, and have taken an aggressive posture in regulating corporate interaction with personal data. Industry-specific regulations, such as the U.S. Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), also contain provisions for the protection of data privacy.
Good security practices are also a part of online privacy protection for both individuals and organizations. The use of weak passwords and easy to guess security questions can put personal information at risk. A type of software known as malware is designed to be installed without a user’s consent, and is frequently used by hackers or identity thieves to collect data from a computer without permission. Malware is a problem for large corporations as well, as it can provide a back-door into a secure company network.
Technology designed to enhance online privacy protection also exists. Encryption software and firewalls are frequently used to protect data from prying eyes. Anti-spyware programs are designed to thwart attempts to track users online, and “anonymizers” try to hide the identity of an Internet user from repressive governments, identity thieves, and others who may be monitoring network traffic. Many web browsers now have a private browsing mode that, when enabled, excludes visited sites from the browser’s history.
Most groups advocating privacy online recommend using a mix of behavioral techniques and technology to maximize online privacy protection. Good behavior can be ineffective if a user’s computer can easily be accessed, and software can’t do much to protect information once its publicly available on the Web. Common behavioral suggestions include limiting the release of personal information whenever possible, avoiding posting too many intimate details on social networking sites, and using secure passwords. Privacy advocates also suggest keeping software up to date and use security programs. Many web browsers also have settings that can be changed to optimize privacy.