2014-06-13 / Columnists

Your Life And Privacy

Shopper Beware - Online Shopping Tips
By Gille Ann Rabbin, Esq., CIPP/US

You don’t feel like getting all gussied up for the mall, so you browse websites looking for that pair of sandals you’ve had your eye on. You find them; maybe you eventually buy them. Then for days afterward, whenever you check the latest headlines on www.nytimes.com or www.washingtonpost.com, you see ads for shoes, boots, shoe cleaner, shoe polish, shoe laces, and so on.

We voluntarily provide plenty of information online, for example, when we create a Facebook profile (gender, hometown, likes), or answer a survey, request information, or purchase a product and arrange for its delivery. We also provide information without thinking about it, like our “clickstream” data, or what we show interest in as we browse the Internet. Our data is sold to data brokers, who combine it to develop marketing profiles for sale to advertising networks. Data collection and use is becoming increasingly sophisticated.

The Internet is the best thing to happen to commerce since the credit card. But while commercial sites are convenient, given our busy lives, have you thought about how much personal information sites are collecting about you, and what they’re doing with it?

Start by taking a look at their privacy policies. Reading a website privacy policy can be daunting if you don’t have a law or technology degree. Policies are often written in technical jargon, couched language, and legalese. If you’re reading them on a mobile device, the difficulties are compounded by the small size of the screen: have you ever tried to read technical jargon, couched language, and legalese in 2-point font on a 2-inch by 1-3/4-inch screen? It’s not easy.

The United States Constitution does not contain an express right to privacy. There is no comprehensive federal law setting forth specific guidelines for websites’ collection, use, and disclosure of personal information, or for regulating the data broker industry. The data broker industry has, however, recently come under government scrutiny, including by the Federal Trade Commission, which has called for legislation in the area.

Standards of privacy vary widely among websites. To understand a site’s information collection practices, start by reading its privacy policy and ask these four important questions:

First, what does the policy say about how the site will collect and use your information, and whether your consent will be required?

Second, does the policy tell you if and how the site will share your information with third parties and who these are (for example, other merchants or data brokers who create and sell marketing profiles)?

Third, will you be able to see the information collected about you, and correct inaccuracies?

Fourth, how secure will your data, retained in a database, be if the database is breached, through hacking or employee error?

Even if you’ve read a site’s privacy policy, you still may have difficulty making sense out of it. (What exactly does it mean when a site says it may share your information with “trusted affiliates”?) Insist on being informed, in terms that you understand. Consider leaving a site if you cannot find answers to your concerns, or if you don’t like or can’t understand the answers.

Sandals come and go, but data, especially if compiled in a marketing profile, can last forever.

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