Is what you’re typing on your computer today safe tomorrow? While you might think you are being careful with personal information, people you come into contact with may not be so cautious. By putting all the pieces together from social networking and elsewhere, the Internet may already reveal far more than you want. Thanks to powerful search engines and directories, personal information is increasingly easy to find.
We’re all helping to kill off privacy in a myriad of ways. For example, if you Twitter or use Foursquare to say that you’re on a family holiday in Spain, it’s not the same as sending postcards to friends. Telling the world might make you feel good but there’s a possible downside. Will a burglar who can find out where you live see an opportunity?
While such thoughts may owe something to paranoia, there are other possibilities. How many times have you sent a sensitive email and found a once-trusted recipient has forwarded it? Press send and control is taken out of your hands. And we all know people leaving jobs might take valuable company data with them.
By cross-referencing business-realted sites such as LinkedIn and Xing with public data and consumer-sites such as Facebook and then looking for relatives - it is relatively simple to find out a lot more information about many of us than we might think. If you have children, your picture is probably on their Facebook account. Did they put in their date of birth, part of the home address that now easily finds you? Do some searching for yourself and see what you find. (I found my full home addess and phone number from a list of charity trustees).
Information technology is now unravelling privacy for individuals and organisations alike. A memory stick is a handy size for pocketing the company’s customer database while archived emails may hold embarrassing secrets. The lost laptop or smartphone may spell disaster while putting personal data into the cloud has its risks.
Before the 18th century industrial revolution, small communities meant everyone knew everyone’s business. The growth of large cities then made it easy for individuals to hide their affairs from others. Now, the internet is turning the world into a global village. You only have to search for personal information on anyone to realise what’s happening.
Where privacy is concerned, the genie is out of the bottle. Should we try to put it back? Although social networking pressures make that difficult, in the corporate world measures such as role-based access offer some respite. It’s also possible, for example, to implement monitoring technology to check security problems such as unusual out-of-hours remote access.
If we do accept privacy is dead, then what can be done? While staying off the social networks is one solution, it doesn’t stop others writing about you. Assume everything that you write or text might be made public one day. The heady attraction of self-publishing also makes some people forget the risks to themselves and others.
Perhaps the best advice within the workplace is simply to work honestly and professionally. It means thinking twice before pressing send and always taking care what you write. Unlike confidential paper documents in securely-locked filing cabinets, electronic files may know no boundaries.
There’s two perhaps unexpected advantages to the growing lack of privacy. It may make some of us more secure by being less trusting of people who publish too much personal information. In addition, if someone contacts you - its easier than ever to check their credentials.
Taking care of the material that’s worth protecting is what really counts here. Although turning the tide on the loss of privacy now seems impossible, it’s certainly time to value what we have.