How Private is Private Data on Public Sites?

Data PrivacyDue to the rise of e-commerce, digital marketing, and social media, privacy online has become quite a hot topic. There is a growing concern over the use of data-collecting cookies and tracking software and their use of data. As our online behavior becomes more intricate, privacy is never a guarantee.

A Thin Line Between Private and Public Data

It’s surprisingly hard to draw a line between what is and is not traceable on public websites. Do public sites use information from personal emails or private messages to serve you targeted advertisements? There have been cases where a product was mentioned in private conversation, followed by advertisements for these products on popular sites such as Facebook and Twitter.

Free Services in Exchange for Your Privacy

Most of these public websites offer their services for free, so one wonders exactly how they make money. Are your emails really private if you are using free email accounts like Gmail and Yahoo? Google has claimed in the past that they have plans to stop analyzing their users’ inboxes for advertising purposes. These companies usually add these conditions in their densely worded privacy policies that most people just ignore and agree to.

For instance, take a look at Gmail’s privacy policy regarding “private usage data analysis.” According to Google’s privacy policy fine print, “We [also] collect the content that you create, upload, or receive from others when using our services. This includes things like email you write and receive, photos and videos you save, docs and spreadsheets you create, and comments that you make on YouTube videos.” This is a clear indication that private data isn’t really private on these public websites.

It’s Easy to Harvest “Private Information” About Individuals Online

Here is the truth about “private” data online. You’ve probably entered your personal information while registering accounts on more than a dozen websites. Some sites are careful with your data, keeping it away from prying eyes. Others publish it, leaving it susceptible to web crawlers, hackers, advertisers, etc.

A simple web search can reveal detailed information about you, including things like age, full name, address, contacts, etc. If a search engine can’t find this information, more specialized data extraction and scraping tools can be used. This personal data can be used for sinister activities like identity theft, impersonation, and cyber-crime. Data can also be used to serve relevant ads to a consumer, or conduct extortion campaigns.

In Conclusion

Just because a website categorizes your data as private doesn’t necessarily mean only you can access it. This is especially true if you use free online services such as email and social media. Visiting a public website has the potential to share your private data with many data collection companies. As a practical example, install the Ghostery add-on on your Chrome web browser and click on it when you visit any public website to see how many tracking companies have access to your data on that website.

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