How To Manage Personal Consumer Information and Protect Your Personal Information Online

From the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to advertising industry groups and software manufacturers, there is a great scramble to find the right balance between how to protect your personal information online and collecting your personal consumer information for their own purposes.

But what types of personal consumer information do businesses and organizations collect, and what can you do to get maximum utility from your personal consumer information without sacrificing your online privacy?

 

Types of personal consumer information collected online

Internet data brokerages start with your credit history to get a basic snapshot of who you are, where you live, and what demographic groups you belong to. Next, they combine this with personal information derived from public government records to develop even more detailed histories.

This data constitutes the personal consumer information baseline, but data collectors do not stop here. Information on your insurance claims and health history may be included, as well as on your criminal history, how often your checks bounce, how often and to whom you return merchandise, where you have rented a residence or place of business, and the charitable causes to which you contribute.

Buyers of personal consumer information include advertisers who want to know which products you’re most likely to purchase and insurers deciding how much to charge you for a policy.

As comprehensive as this collection of personal consumer information is, online  behavioral tracking companies take it to another level by monitoring which websites you visit, what you do on those sites, and which ads you click or don’t click. They also collect geolocation information, via your smartphone, about where you are, your routines, and the businesses you patronize. As a result, data collection companies possess extensive personal consumer information stores, for sale to the highest bidder, regardless of the implications to your online privacy.

Buyers of personal consumer information include advertisers who want to know which products you’re most likely to purchase and insurers deciding how much to charge you for a policy, to name two common examples. Several new companies are also using this personal information to measure an individual’s online reputation and rank him or her competitively against other people.

 

Reasons why you might want to share your personal consumer information

There are reasons why you would want to allow outside parties to have partial access to your personal consumer information, just as there are important reasons to protect your online privacy from unfettered access.

For instance, some 600 million people are willing to share their personal consumer information with Facebook, albeit begrudgingly at times, in exchange for the ability to easily receive status updates from friends, find long-lost acquaintances, and view vacation photos. To give another example, location-based services like FourSquare offer coupons and discounts to members who “check in” to certain businesses via their smartphones, essentially trading their personal consumer information for monetary value.

Sure, you can opt out of all these services by setting your privacy controls to the maximum and never using websites or apps that rely on personal consumer information for functionality. Unfortunately, you probably also want to watch videos on YouTube, look up restaurant reviews on OpenTable, and read the news online. For all of these activities, you must give up some degree of online privacy, but you shouldn’t be forced to share the entirety of your personal consumer information.

Promising privacy protection measures are in the works, which should eventually increase your control over your personal consumer information. At the end of January 2011, the Direct Marketing Association (DMA), responsible for a good chunk of online behavioral tracking, announced it would enforce its do-not-track guidelines. These require a tracking opt-out button to be placed on websites employing the DMA network.

In addition, the Mozilla Foundation, which makes the Firefox browser, recently released a beta version of its new automatic-opt-out privacy protection feature. And the Electronic Frontier Foundation has released numerous technical specifications for building services that allow users to reap the benefits of geolocation devices and social networking without divulging personal consumer information.

 

Tools to protect your personal information online

Until stronger measures are adopted via industry efforts or government regulation, there are a couple of concrete steps you can take to protect your privacy and stop the unrestricted collection of your personal consumer information by third parties.

First, you can opt out of many of the people search and data brokerage services that collect your personal information. This Reputation.com Resource Center article offers instructions on how to remove yourself from Spokeo, US Search, and many similar networks. Alternatively, you can sign up for MyPrivacy, offered by Reputation.com, which gives you the option of automatically and permanently opting out of dozens of data brokerages simultaneously. The following video explains how MyPrivacy works.

Also, you should stay up to date on new developments in the field. This article, on proposed do-not-track solutions, is a good place to start. It outlines the issue, how companies collect data, and possible solutions that would increase privacy control for individuals. With this information you can have success and protect your personal information online.