Whether you know it or not, we deal in data every time we go online to watch, read, order, cancel or discuss something. To most people, it goes unnoticed; just some zeroes and ones that let us connect our phones to the latest thing we are looking at.
However, an entire market exists beneath all the glamor of the latest purchase and behind the comment section of a fiery social media post. A market where the data we use to engage in online activity is bought and sold, traded and shared so that our habits might leverage further consumerism – creating an endless cycle of metadata.
The genuine product is often our personal information. Businesses and governments use the information to identify people and the traits tied to their browsing, purchasing, and other online activity.
If I’ve got your attention, that’s a good thing.
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What is Personal Information?
The US Government defines Personal Information as:
“Information that can be used to distinguish or trace an individual’s identity, either alone or when combined with other information that is linked or linkable to a specific individual.”
To put it plainly, it’s information /about someone/. To put it into more focus, think about common ways you might identify yourself – you’ve got the name that identifies you. That’s an easy one. But there’s also your appearance. That generally sets you apart from others. What else? Your address? Email address? Yes, those count too.
But there’s more —even more privileged info. Your government likely issued you a Birth Certificate. Details there are personal information. Most governments also issue a number like Social Security to individuals as well. It’s a means of tax tracking and other things. These are also personal information, as are more arbitrary ones like your Credit or Debit Card number, PIN, expiry date, and CCV number. This entire category of information is probably some of the most important to an individual and should be cared for.
When do we use our Personal Information?
Most commonly, we make use of our Personal Information on the internet. But that is not to say we don’t also use it in the real world.
For instance, when we join a rewards program at shops we visit regularly, we provide our name and some contact information to the store. Or when we make a purchase and choose to have a receipt emailed to us instead of printed on paper. And even when we participate in humble community events such as raffles or lotteries. We’re also giving our names and contact info to our churches, non-profit groups, and other interests.
Online, many of the same scenarios apply. When we buy things, we typically set up accounts with various online stores, keeping a record of our names and contact info. Sometimes we store our payment info with them too.
Other times, we’re signing up for programs, deals, offers, contests, and more. Those systems keep track of names, contact info, and sometimes other requirements such as comments, social media profile info, and more.
Governments provide us with identifying information such as security numbers and birth certificates. Additionally, governments of various countries have programs and tax access more available online to their citizens. These systems also contain a great deal of information that relate to each of the individuals in those countries.
Even more online personal information goes into the tracking cookies and other data used to send and receive all data from our computers – whether a Google search, watching something on your favorite streaming platform, or commenting on social media. The back end of all these services tracks your habits and preferences, which can also be considered personal information.
This all sounds…Risky?
Well, it certainly doesn’t have to be. Billions of engagements occur daily where people’s personal information is used in person or online. The bulk of these cases are irrelevant – ones where you’re aware of what you’re giving and what you’re getting back are generally the norm. We know we need to log into our social media, pay for things at the store, and include a return address when we send an email or letter mail.
Taking personal measures to protect the rest of our information can help create a unique solution for our individual needs. For some, that means using a Password Manager to organize and centralize logins for easy and secure access. For others, it’s using 2-Factor Authentication anywhere they can. Physical security might include an RFID Blocker in the wallet. In short, there is a ton of customization for personal data security.
Aren’t businesses responsible too?
Yes, absolutely! Companies are also responsible for the information they collect and how they hold and use it. There’s a handful of practices most companies observe:
Terms of Service – Every business you might share personal info with has a TOS page. These generally outline how relationships work between them and customers/vendors/etc. And illustrate what actions the company and customers may take in various circumstances.
Government Law – Businesses are responsible for following all the laws and regulations of the country and any zone or region that upholds laws or bilaws relating to the operation of businesses.
As an extension of Government Law, we have Regional Law as well. Many online businesses are required to adhere to standards such as the following:
California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) – This regional law looks at personal information from a lens of consumer safety, enacting regulations and protocols that businesses are operating in (or selling to residents of) California USA must abide by.
General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) – Much like CCPA, the GDPR is an extensive body of privacy principles and regulations designed and enforced with similar principles of protection and obeyance of EEA members’ personal information preferences (European Economic Area). As of 2018, there is a GDPR for the EU and the UK.
Where do we go from here?
How to choose a business or website that is privacy-conscious?
Well, that risk is still there. While we have laws and procedures to protect individuals and our personal information, we must choose who we engage with and to what degree.
Choosing businesses whose online presence is privacy-conscious is an excellent place to start.
What does it mean to be privacy conscious? It means that the business operates in a way that is transparent about the collection and use of personal information on its site(s) and offers individuals direct control over that personal information.
To identify a business or website that is privacy-conscious, look for indicators such as these:
When you visit a website, if the address bar attaches “https://” to the front of the address you visit, it indicates an SSL certificate is installed. An SSL certificate prevents 3rd parties from spying on data sent to/from the website, which is an excellent starting point.
Websites sometimes want to put a tracking cookie on your browser. A privacy-conscious business will pop up a prompt to visitors, letting them choose to accept or decline the cookie.
The business will have extensive legal docs available on-site. These will cover fair use and expectations on personal information and include handling/return/removal options for customers. In tandem with this, a privacy-conscious business will have conformed to major industry standards such as CCPA and GDPR, which we discussed earlier.
Availability and Responsiveness
The final key is how easily the company can be reached for service or support. A privacy-conscious company will be available for these kinds of questions. And it’ll be responsive. The business will have no problem replying promptly and with helpful information.
These aren’t the only ways to tell if a business cares about the privacy of its visitors’ personal information, but they’re excellent markers for it—the more boxes a business checks, the more that business could be considered privacy-conscious.
Well, that’s handy! But what about?
“What about my site?” – Great question! While we’re identifying Personal Information and businesses that respect it, we’ll go in-depth in a future post on how you can make your web presence privacy-conscious too. Hint, the last section of this post is part of it! 😉
“Well what about YOUR site?” – Oh, you mean chemicloud.com? Yeah, I’d say that we are privacy-conscious! Some of the things we’re doing here to help look after our customers and their personal info include:
A) URL Protection – We’ve got an SSL installed to protect visitors and their data, ensuring data to and from our site is secure. We also use Cloudflare. It offers an extra layer of protection over our DNS, which helps protect against attacks on our servers that might otherwise expose user data.
B) Cookies – we don’t prompt for them, and we don’t auto-inject them. As a staff member, I have cookies from my logins, so I tested by clearing all cookies and browsing our site while logged out of everything, and I’m happy to report that trackers don’t barrage visitors.
D) We’re always available and happy to hear from you – customers, interested parties, and those who stumbled upon us are always welcome to reach us.
The over-arching goal is to discover that our personal information holds value, regardless of how mundane it may feel at a given moment. Knowing that it’s a commodity to the businesses we engage with gives us the upper hand in choosing who we deal with and how we do it, and it lets us measure expectations with a level of control. We’re armed to make better choices.
If you were curious about personal information before, I hope this small guide helps to spell out the often unspoken side of personal information and the value of our privacy. If you’d like to know more, follow this blog as we explore topics like this and more in upcoming installments. And finally, feel free to leave your feedback – just like your privacy, we value the input and insights of our readers.
Thanks again, and have an informative day!