Internet Privacy and You

The internet has allowed us to research, visit faraway places, share information and stay in touch with family and friends like never before but if you’ve been paying attention to the news lately, you’ll know that there’s a price to be paid. ‘Free’ isn’t actually free. At least, not in terms of your privacy. Data is the new oil, an extremely valuable resource and one that is constantly being mined from each and every one of us every time we jump on our computers, tablets or smartphones. Still, having access to the world is extremely beneficial to older adults, particularly those who are shut-ins due to physical challenges. The ability for telehealth networks to gather, analyze and diagnose health issues gives us and our health care providers options that our parents could only dream of. Those who are aging in place can stay in their communities and have groceries, prescriptions and whatever else they want ordered on line and delivered to their doors. There are clear benefits and clear risks. It’s all in the choices we make about how we use the resource.

When using the internet, every platform from browsers to apps to social networks has policies, terms and conditions that you agree to by virtue of establishing an account and continuing to use the platform. Not reading the terms and conditions doesn’t relieve you from being bound by them. Don’t believe those posts that occasionally make the rounds on Facebook that claim to be disallowing access to your information, images or contacts merely by posting that notice. If you choose to use the platform you are bound by the terms and conditions not some flakey post that your Facebook friends encouraged you to share.

Facebook allows the formation of groups that are open, closed, and secret. Other platforms may have similar functions. Groups are formed for all kinds of reasons from allowing conversation and planning of a social event to support for a specific cause and, of interest to our readers, support and advice to families dealing with a range of topics concerning aging. Groups for families challenged by dementia, depression, cancer, retirement and more. Open groups are clearly open to the anyone who chooses to look. Closed groups and their members can be seen by anyone but only members can see the posts. Information about Secret groups, including who the members are and the posts made within the group, can only be seen by the members of the group. While members of the closed and especially secret groups may be tempted to feel a sense of security by the restrictions in place, don’t be tempted to let your guard down. Your posts and information, those heartfelt thoughts and tear-jerking experiences that you share with like-minded souls, can be captured in a screen shot by anyone at any time. Facebook has recently decided to give priority to groups in their bid to encourage community but the larger the group, the less likely that the members have been vetted so you may not reasonably have any idea who you’re actually sharing your information with.

While we’re on the subject of Facebook, are you someone who clicks on those games that profess to tell you how good you are at grammar or who your Hogwarts soulmate is? You should stop falling prey to those if you want to minimize the data you willingly give. And those apps that you give permission to interact with Facebook that are gathering data whether you like it or not? On Monday April 9th, Facebook will give you a list of those apps and give you a direct link to easily disconnect them. Be aware that disconnecting them won’t delete the information those apps have about you. To do that you will need to contact each app individually. The good news is that by disconnecting them and, now that you know, not allowing other apps to connect to your Facebook account, you can prevent further sharing of your data going forward.

The browser you choose can impact your privacy. While browsers such as Chrome now offer ‘incognito’ mode by allowing you to choose to open a new incognito window don’t be fooled into thinking this is akin to putting on an invisibility cloak. Incognito in the world of browsers means that the browser doesn’t save cookies, your browsing history or temporary internet files. It does not mean that your activity is private from employers, the websites you visit or your internet service provider.

VPN’s are gaining popularity, mostly with people trying to view information from outside a country that locks down some of its info. Think trying to gain access to US television programs from another country. A Virtual Private Network encrypts the connection from your computer to the VPN’s server, which may be located anywhere in the world, so that part is reasonably safe from snoops, but any activity can be monitored and traced back to the IP address of the VPN. The catch is the ‘reasonably safe’ phrase. Accessing the internet via any digital highway uses data and we should never assume that a VPN keeps us 100% hidden. Almost as soon as one thing is developed, another is developed that can break or access everything.

Opera is an internet browser that has a built in VPN. For those who are concerned about always needing to remember to launch an incognito window, or just want some built in privacy, this may be the better browser to use. It’s free and available for computers, tablets and smartphones. It bears repeating that although Opera may be a safer way to browse, it is not an invisible way to browse.

The most important piece in all of this is that you, the user, always have complete control over the information you choose to put out there. You should regard anything you post on any social platform as public. If you don’t want the information out there, don’t post it because once you do, you have no control over what happens next.

With all of the media attention currently focused on Facebook, it’s easy to lose sight of who else has our information. If you use the internet for anything, whether or not you post a single thing, rest assured that nobody has more information on you than your Internet Service Provider. That’s right. You send and receive email, use apps to check the weather, surf the ‘net to research your next trip, upload pictures to the cloud and more. In fact, most of what you do may not involve Facebook at all and, while their reach is substantial, they don’t see everything but your ISP does. We are naïve if we choose to believe that our ISP isn’t collecting and storing that data somewhere, somehow. Even small local networks which may or may not be collecting data, are connecting to larger networks to allow us access to the digital world. Somewhere along the route our data is being gathered.

Take it back one step to your computer. Even if you aren’t surfing the internet, when was the last time you fired up a new computer and weren’t asked to create or log on to your Microsoft or Apple account? Your computer knows when it needs updates, your word processing or spreadsheet program knows how you use the software and uses global preferences to build the next version of their software and your IP address is always known.

It may seem like the only way to be truly anonymous is to stop using computers, tablets or smartphones but that’s not how the world works anymore. Every time we swipe a debit card, use our passport or enter a contest we are leaving a piece of information behind, yet we have become quite comfortable with this. The information that is being ‘scraped’ from sites like Facebook is information that each of us chose to put out there. There are tremendous advantages to be had by understanding technology and using it wisely. The best advice: Be mindful of what and how you choose to share.