Privacy Isn’t a Right (Yet) — Here’s How to Take Control of Your Data

Have you discussed a product with a friend only to see an ad for it appear in your Facebook news feed? Or worse, have you or someone you know been a victim of identity theft?

It's an open secret that your personal data is routinely bought and sold by dozens of companies. By looking at credit card spending, browsing history or smartphone data, it's easy to determine if you're pregnant, trying to lose weight or taking certain medications, as well as where you've been and who you know — along with thousands of other data points.

This data is routinely used to not only target advertisements, but determine your creditworthiness, assess job eligibility and much more. In the wrong hands, criminals can use the same information to answer security questions and compromise your online accounts. In fact, identity thieves managed to steal some $1.7 billion last year alone.

It's an open secret that your personal data is routinely bought and sold by dozens of companies – fortunately, there are ways to stop it. Let's take a look at why privacy matters and some practical ways to take control over your personal data.

Why Privacy Matters

Most people want to take control over their data, but realize that they don't have much control over its collection and use. According to a recent Pew Research Center survey, only 9% of respondents believed that they had "a lot of control" over their data, while 74% said it was very important for them to be in control of their data.

There are several reasons why privacy is important:

  • Personal data influences many important decisions that affect our everyday lives, including loan decisions, airport security and the messages and content that we see online, among many other things.
  • Privacy limits the power of governments and private companies by restricting what they know about us. This information is commonly used to influence decisions and shape behavior — both commercially and politically.
  • Privacy protects important data that could be dangerous in the hands of criminals. In addition to financial data, there are many other ways that information could be abused in areas like domestic violence.

These concerns were largely responsible for the passage of the General Data Protection Regulation, or GDPR, in the European Union, which places restrictions on data collection for European users. While these laws have resulted in more pop-ups alerting us to the use of cookies, the effectiveness has been widely debated.

The California Consumer Privacy Act, or CCPA, aims to introduce similar requirements in the country's most populous state — effectively setting a precedent for the U.S. After passing in September 2018, the new rules targeting large companies and data brokers become effective on January 1, 2020, in part requiring an easy way to opt-out.

Opt-out of Everything

Most people don't read the lengthy terms of use when signing up for a website and some even forget to uncheck the "sign up for our newsletter" checkbox. Often times, these agreements contain a buried consent to collect personal information, as well as share or sell that information to third parties.

Download our Checklist of Privacy Tools that you should consider downloading to ensure that your personal data stays private.

The good news is that many large companies enable you to opt-out of sharing at least some information to comply with existing and upcoming regulations:

  • Facebook's ad preferences let you review and change the information used to display ads. You can also opt-out of third-party data in the ad settings, where you can choose "Not Allows" under each category.
  • Twitter's personalization settings make it possible to turn off tailoring advertisements based on recent website visitors, while the "Do Not Track" option opts out of tracking your browser's history for Twitter ads.
  • Google lets you opt-out of sharing your browsing data in the activity controls section of your Google account, including histories, voice and audio activity, and location data collected from any Android smartphones.

Many data brokers also have opt-out forms that you can fill out to remove your personal data from their websites, including White Pages, LexisNexis, Spokeo, BeenVerified, InstantCheckmate, Intelius, ZoomInfo, PeopleSmart, Acxiom, Radaris and others — although there's no guarantee that the data is permanently removed.

Protect Your Identity

Most people are familiar with ad blockers that prevent annoying advertisements from displaying, but relatively few use privacy tools to prevent websites from tracking your browsing history and collecting personal information. These tools are the best line of defense since they stop data collection before it begins.

Don't forget to download our Checklist of Privacy Tools that you should consider downloading to ensure that your personal data stays private.

The best way to prevent anyone from accessing your browsing history is a virtual private network, or VPN. This tool re-routes any request through an anonymous third-party server that obscures your original IP address. You can also use to encrypt your traffic and prevent any snooping by ISPs or other intermediaries.

Ghostery’s Upcoming Midnight Product - Source: Ghostery

In addition, browser plugins like Ghostery can block trackers from following you online. TrackMeNot takes the opposite approach by creating noise and obfuscation — conducting fake searches and clicks on ads to make an inaccurate profile of your interests and behaviors. Either way, these tools will prevent advertisers from knowing about you.

There are also privacy-focused search engines, such as DuckDuckGo, and privacy-focused messaging apps, such as Telegram, that can ensure that your search queries and messages are sent privately and securely. These tools can be invaluable in closing the loop and preventing any data collection for common online activities.

The Bottom Line

Most people believe that protecting their personal information is important, but few realize how to do it. While new regulations aim to make it easier in the future, there are several steps that you can take in the meantime to help prevent companies from collecting your personal information and selling it to third-parties.

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