The news is out and it’s not good. In fact, it’s downright troubling.  It seems that every day, usually several times a day, there is more and more information available about the dangers of the Internet.  It’s enough to make a Luddite out of even the most devoted technophile.  Here’s a sampling of some of the latest updates on the lack of privacy on the Internet, and threats to personal and financial information:

  • Online Tracking is Worse Than We Thought: UC Berkeley Law School recently released its first ever Web Privacy Census, which was aimed at measuring how companies track visitors to their websites. The report confirmed that all the top 100 web sites use cookies to track users and visitors. If that’s not worrisome enough, the study also determined that the use of tracking software on users’ computers has doubled in the past year. This is about more than tracking users anonymously to provide targeted advertising—like when you scroll a website for a grill and then you check your email and suddenly see ads for some of the same grills you clicked on from the sites you just visited.  Apparently, companies are just as likely to collect and use personal information in ways that may subject consumers to price discrimination, lowered credit scores and limits, and even identity theft.
  • Social Networking Can Be Dangerous: The FBI recently issued a new warning on social networking.  The FBI pointed out that hackers are not only threatening governments—they are also targeting individual users via social networks, exposing the users and their workplaces, if they are online in the office, to great harm.  Hackers either exploit personal connections through social networks or write and manipulate computer code to gain access and/or install unwanted software on personal or company computers or phones. 
  • Tweets and Facebook Posts May be Used Against You: The courts continue to weigh in on whether social networking may be used against users who post information on their personal sites.  While the judiciary’s responses vary on a case-by-case basis, so far the trend seems to be that posts on Facebook or tweets may be used as grounds for dismissals from jobs, or even against defendants in criminal or civil cases.

Politicians are paying attention.  Senators and Representatives have introduced a plethora of competing bills and held or plan to hold a number of hearings to discuss how best to protect Internet users.  A good summary of the most recent efforts can be found on the Data Privacy Monitor blog run by the law firm Baker Hostetler.  Issues being addressed include protections to safeguard users’ privacy, requiring greater transparency from companies about how they troll for information from users and what they use that data for, and clearer terms of use that allow consumers to easily opt out of having their time online tracked.  In addition, the National Telecommunications & Information Administration (NTIA) has announced its first meeting to develop a code of conduct in order to uncover how companies that provide apps for mobile devices deal with personal information.

Keeping up with all the changes is daunting, but as we’ve said before, in our entries “The Myth of Online Privacy” and “Fight Hackers With Encryption,” there are simple steps you can take to protect yourself.  This article, “How to Keep Your Facebook Profile Private Yet Usable,” written by Dave Copeland details the best ways to protect yourself on Facebook, short of not signing up in the first place. Numerous software programs exist to block tracking data from being stored on your computers.  Creating a clear Internet use policy for your company and making sure your employees understand what is expected of them is also a good plan.

And, as always, doing the bare minimum is crucial: encrypting emails, only using secure Wi-Fi connections and avoiding some of the most common tricks used to activate malware that can log keystrokes or record phone calls.

None of these measures will provide complete protection, but they are good places to start to ensure that you and your company are being proactive about guarding against some of the dangers that lurk online.