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SALT LAKE CITY — In the wake of security leaks like the Cloudbleed scare, it can be scary to think of confidential information being accidentally released on the internet, security breaches occurring on company networks or someone’s personal information being sold to advertisers for marketing purposes.
However, we give much of this information to companies willingly without even knowing it. Every time we sign up for a social networking website, integrate our email and calendars to a single program or service, sign up for a newsletter or shop online, we're handing over a wealth of private data to information-hungry companies.
So what is all of this information used for?
Much of the information can be used to match products and services that best fit our own unique profile. Companies craft a profile about each of us from the information that we offer when we register, which can be used for advertising and marketing.
They use these profiles to build a custom marketing package that will appeal to our tailored wants and desires. Sometimes this information is packaged and sold to other companies as well.
There are also more sinister uses for our personal information. People that are in the business of stealing identities can find a wealth of information fairly easily, including addresses, birthdates, names of relatives and job history.
A lot of our personal information that could be used to fill out a fraudulent credit card application can be found freely on social media sites. The Federal Trade Commission estimates that as many as 9 million Americans have their identities stolen each year.
We also hear about company websites and networks being hacked, especially if employees are careless with personal data.
USB drives are great tools for storing lots of information in a portable and easy-to-use device, but they're easily stolen if an employee for a large insurance company leaves a laptop in the car and it's stolen.
Customers' personal information may also be lost if a company does not follow strict policy when destroying documents and information ends up in a dumpster or landfill where it can be easily found.
What can you do to protect your personal information?
Social media networks have often come under fire for how they share their subscriber’s information. With millions of users posting information about how they spend their day, what they purchase, who they know and where they work, the data is a goldmine for the company in generating revenue.
The long user agreements people should read before they sign up for these sites often contain information on how the companies plan on using subscriber data, though many do not read the fine print and are unaware of this caveat.
With that agreement, companies are free to use the information as they wish. However, because of the recent media attention, many sites have started offering ways for users to adjust the information they share.
Popular search engines and email providers also offer easy-to-integrate applications that allow users to synchronize their personal email, calendar and searches in one easy-to-access location.
It’s very convenient, but it's also important to know who owns the information contained in the emails. Reading the long and arduous license and agreement can help shed light on exactly who owns what information.
While reading user agreements is something we tend to skip, it definitely pays off when signing up for any website that asks for personal information, especially sites without well-established reputations.
To avoid reading the entire thing, type "Command+F" and search for key words within the user agreement about sharing information. You can also search “how does XYZ company share data” into an internet search engine to read about how the company is viewed in the public’s opinion.
Whenever submitting information via website forms, it is also crucial to ensure that the form is transmitted securely, and most new web browsers have built-in checks to do so. Look for a small picture of a padlock in the bottom corner of the website form. If the padlock is locked, the form is secure. If the padlock is unlocked, beware.
When researching a potential business to use, it may also be beneficial to check with the Better Business Bureau, investigate using internet searches or contact the local state attorney’s office to see if the company has had any issues with security breaches or private data loss.
Users should also check their credit report and bank account regularly for errors or fraud.
Unfortunately, personal information may also come from other sources, and we may not always be able to control the information that is floating out in cyberspace.
A good rule of thumb, however, is not to disclose any information online that you would not disclose in public. And if a rich prince in Nigeria needs your help moving his millions, let him find someone else to help him.
John has over 16 years of experience working with computers as the Director of Operations at inQuo, a computer repair company. He is the author of a blog and a regular contributor to the business newspaper, The Enterprise. You can email him at email@example.com.