Open Book

     Online Privacy – now there’s an oxymoron. Or maybe it’s just a myth. Apparently you can find out anything about anybody on the internet with a minimal amount of searching. Addresses, telephone numbers, ages, relatives – all of our information exists online and it’s readily available with the click of a button. Privacy has disappeared in this world of Google search engines. As more and more people live their lives on social media sites like Twitter, Instagram and Facebook, greater care should be given to control access to your personal information.

     The recent admission by Facebook that user information was gathered by a third party company came as no surprise. Last month, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg appeared before a congressional committee to answer questions about who has access to private information of the millions of users of his social media app. Senators and representatives questioned Zuckerberg about how subscriber’s personal information was obtained by Cambridge Analytica, a British political consulting firm that uses data to create profiles of people based on their online likes and dislikes.

    Cambridge Analytica proceeded to target Facebook members’ news feeds with information to sway them in a certain direction during the 2016 presidential election. The company used private information to target groups in the hopes of influencing voters. When word of this leaked out, Facebook’s founder found himself under fire in the political hot seat of the Congressional arena.

     Mark Zuckerberg was adept at answering questions directly and honestly. His defense: everyone who joins Facebook voluntarily gives up their privacy if the member doesn’t check the correct box to limit access to personal information. Most of us don’t read the fine print of the scrolling “Terms and Conditions”. People can’t wait to get to the “I Accept” box to mark it with an “X” and sign their life away. I’m guilty as well.

     I have yet to go back and change my privacy preferences on the Facebook site. My life is an open book anyway (as anyone who reads this column knows). I am the one putting my information out there. It’s different when a data company is analyzing what I choose to like or dislike in someone’s Facebook post.

     I was perplexed to see advertisements appear in my news feed for anything I gave a passing glance at on Google. It got scary when items would pop up on my Facebook page related to conversations my wife and I had in the privacy of our own home. Are you listening, Alexa? It sure seems that way sometimes.

Eerie electronic coincidences aside, everyone needs to be more vigilant about what information internet sites and cell phone apps can access.

I’m not the best spokesperson for online security. The latest app I’ve added to my phone is from a wine company called 19 Crimes. Each version of their wine has an interactive label on the bottle. With the app installed, you point your phone screen at the wine bottle and the photo of the criminal on the label comes alive and tells the story of his crime. It’s like watching a living wanted poster from the  Harry Potter movies talking to you in your own kitchen. All I had to do to install the app was check off the box giving the wine company access to my cell phone, my photos, my email and my first born son. It was worth it to see an animated turn of the century criminal tell his tale of how he was banished to a prison in the Australian outback.

     It’s time to rethink how much personal information we voluntarily release to the world. The bottom line of your online privacy is in your hands. Do you care enough to monitor who has access to your information, or are you comfortable enough not to care? Judging from the boxes I’ve been checking off recently, it may be too late for me. When I started getting advertisements in my online feed about items I only thought about buying, I knew things had gone too far.

     Can the flood of available online personal information be stopped, or at least minimized in today’s digital world? Search me.

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