Good-bye to privacy?

Learn about major new threats to your privacy, from social networks to advertisers to yourself.

New Yorker Barry Hoggard draws a line in the sand when it comes to online privacy. In May he said farewell to 1251 Facebook friends by deleting his account of four years to protest what he calls the social network's eroding privacy policies.

"I'm sick of keeping track of my Facebook privacy settings and what boxes I have to check to protect myself," says Hoggard, a computer programmer. "I don't have a lot of illusions about online privacy, but Facebook has gone too far," he says of Facebook's recent privacy policy changes.

From Facebook to advertisers who may be putting your online identity up for sale to the highest bidder, and to strangers who could track you across town, new ways of using technology and the Internet are making privacy issues a flash point for controversy.

"Privacy today isn't what it was a year ago," says Jeffrey Chester, director of the Center for Digital Democracy, a nonprofit group that promotes online privacy and free speech. "It wasn't long ago we were worried about advertisers planting cookies on our PC," he says. With today's trends, keeping a handle on your privacy is going to become even harder a year from now, he adds.

What follows are several emerging privacy threats.

Social Networks

Do social networks herald the end of privacy? Lots of former Facebook users who recently ditched their accounts in protest think so. With 450 million users, many say, Facebook is a bellwether for other social networks on user privacy.

Swapping small talk and vacation photos made Facebook addictive for users. But over the years, they've watched as their private info became shared with a growing sphere of strangers--advertisers. And in May, Facebook made changes to its privacy policy that exposed more personal data to a wider range of marketers.

One change involved the Instant Personalization pilot program, which let selected Facebook partner Websites access your data and tailor content to your tastes. With Instant Personalization activated, your Facebook information can be accessed the moment you arrive on partner sites including Microsoft's Docs.com, Pandora, and Yelp. When the program launched in April, Facebook automatically activated it for all users. However, a privacy uproar forced the company to revise its policy. Instant Personalization is now optional for users.

Facebook has suffered privacy backlashes before. In 2007 it introduced Beacon, an ad system that tracked certain actions of Facebook users on 44 partner sites so as to report those actions back to users' Facebook friends network. But many users revolted, citing privacy concerns. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg quickly apologized and made Beacon an optional feature.

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Tom Spring

PC World (US online)
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