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Online Privacy Guide for Americans (Part 1 of 2)

written by: •edited by: Brian Nelson•updated: 4/13/2009

This article explains how Americans can protect their online privacy.

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    Introduction

    The basic rule to maintain personal online privacy is to protect your personal, sensitive or confidential information stored on your home computer and any electronic devices from any unauthorized access as you do everyday with files, identification, and paper records.

    Since electronic communications are now commonplace even though every household doesn’t have a home computer, online privacy is not limited to the individual’s use of a home computer. With personal preferences and information being stored and accessed through digital networks, a household with a land-based phone without a home computer or mobile phone also needs to be concerned about internet privacy. It is an ongoing tedious process to protect your personal privacy online.

    American laws that protect your everyday privacy do not necessarily protect your electronic communications and storage. The Federal Trade Commission says that websites based in the United States must honor their posted policies which are allowed to change without notice. Most consumer or website visitor privacy protection is available in a posted privacy policy or a Terms of Use statement. Policies typically include intents to protect your personal and sensitive information and intents for how your information is used along with legal protection for the company or website.

    To use options available to protect your privacy you need to know how your personal information is collected and used. It is not my intention to tell you which options, if any, you should choose. But, this article will provide you with a basic understanding so you can make intelligent choices.

    A national privacy standard in the United States of America does not exist. How your personal information is used depends on the type of information, the state involved and the industry involved.

    To protect your online privacy:

    • Follow basic internet safety guidelines.
    • Secure your home computer.
    • Use email encryption software.
    • Opt-out
    • Read and understand policies (including EULAs) when registering at a website (examples: before downloading or using the website) or signing a purchase receipt from retailers before giving your consent or permission.
    • Protect your cell phone call records. Have your phone provider set-up your account with password protection.
    • When connecting to WiFi networks, use WPA or WPA2 encryption instead of WEP.

    Here are a few questions you should consider asking yourself when submitting personal information (registering a warranty, registering to use a website, applying for store discount cards or shopping online) or opening a free email account. The answers are typically in the Privacy Policy, EULA or the Terms of Use statement at the website.

    • What personal information is collected?
    • How is collected personal information used?
    • Does the company or website sell, rent or make available your information to third parties?
    • How long is personal information stored?
    • How long does a “deleted” email stay on the server?
    • What does the company do when law enforcement asks for personal customer information?

    When you use a store or club discount or loyalty card, your name and address can be linked to your purchases along with your email address and other places you visit online if the store or club has a website. If you do not want a profile compiled of your shopping habits, you have three options:

    • Don’t apply for the card
    • Register with a generic name like “worker”, “housewife” or "grocery shopper" without an address and pay in cash
    • Decide not to use club cards where they are offered after you applied.

American Online Privacy

This series considers whether Americans can protect their online privacy and how it can be compromised.
  1. Online Privacy Guide for Americans (Part 1 of 2)
  2. Online Privacy Guide for Americans (Part 2 of 2)