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You Are Being Tracked Online: Here Are 5 Ways to Protect Your Privacy

If you listen carefully online, you’ll hear a deep sucking sound -- that's the sound of all your personal data being gobbled up by digital service providers.

If you listen carefully when you turn on your smartphone or tablet computer or go online using your computer, you’ll hear a deep sucking sound. That's the sound of all your personal data being gobbled up by a growing array of digital service providers.

On Feb. 23, the White House issued a long-awaited report outlining a framework for personal cyber privacy, “Consumer Data Privacy in a Networked World: A Framework for Protecting Privacy and Promoting Global Innovation in the Global Digital Economy.” Billing itself a " Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights," the report stresses the need for transparency, security, accuracy and a reasonable limits to what is collected.

Unfortunately, this “white paper” is in keeping with the Obama administration’s overall policy of compromise so that both policy and principle meet the vested interests of those with power. As with the banking and financial service regulation or oversight over healthcare providers, insurance companies and big pharma companies, the interests of the digital data collectors and the advertising industry will be furthered while the privacy rights of ordinary digital user will be sacrificed.

Overlooked by the media, the Federal Trade Commission issued a warning earlier in February over apparent violations of children’s privacy rights involving the operating systems of the Apple iPhone and iPad as well as Google’s Android and their respective apps developers. Its report, " Mobile Apps for Kids," examined 8,000 mobile apps designed for children and found that parents couldn’t safeguard the personal information the app maker collected.

To illustrate how pernicious this practice is, one iPhone app, Path, offered by a Singapore developer, downloaded an iPhone users' entire address book without alerting them. Prodded by a letter from Congressmen Henry Waxman (D-CA) and G.K. Butterfield (D-NC), Apple’s CEO Tim Cook said the company will ensure that app developers get permission before downloading a user's address book.

The battle over your personal data is principally about ad spending. The mass media is witnessing a shift from “broadcast” media like newspapers, radio and TV to “targeted” media like website ads, search capabilities and social networks. The consequences for newspapers and magazines are clear; TV is fighting to hold onto every ad dollar with a new “social TV” initiative. And your personal information is what  enables targeted advertising.

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The Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights proposes seven principles to direct congressional legislation and federal agency rulemaking. These principles are:

“Consumers have a right to exercise control over what personal data companies collect from them and how they use it.” This means that individuals should have control over their data.

“Consumers have a right to easily understandable and accessible information about privacy and security practices.” This means that that corporate data collection policies should be transparent and companies should disclose the scope of information collected, how it is used and whether it is shared with or sold to third parties.

“Consumers have a right to expect that companies will collect, use, and disclose personal data in ways that are consistent with the context in which consumers provide the data.” If one accepts the new reality in which companies are people, this means that companies should be moral in their relations with consumers, especially with regard to children.

“Consumers have a right to secure and responsible handling of personal data.” This means that companies should maintain safeguards to protect a user’s data and prevent unauthorized access and improper disclosure of the data.

“Consumers have a right to access and correct personal data in usable formats, in a manner that is appropriate to the sensitivity of the data and the risk of adverse consequences to consumers if the data is inaccurate.” This means that companies should provide consumers with reasonable access to their personal data as well as the ability to correct mistakes, request deletions or limit its use.

“Consumers have a right to reasonable limits on the personal data that companies collect and retain.” This means that companies should collect only as much personal data as needed to further contextually appropriate purposes and once data is no longer needed, it should be deleted or de-identified. It also means that consumers should have the ability to make corrections.

“Consumers have a right to have personal data handled by companies with appropriate measures in place to assure they adhere to the Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights.” This means that companies should conduct full audits where appropriate and, if they disclose personal data to third parties, they do under enforceable obligations to adhere to the Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights.

In addition, the report urges greater interoperability between U.S. privacy principles and the country’s international partners, especially the European Union.

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