How private is your data?

With Facebook and Google having hit opposition on the way they handle the vast quantities of user data in recent times, internet users may be left wondering what actually happens to information they send or receive while online.

Facebook privacy face-off
Facebook has recently been hit with a class action over alleged monitoring of users’ private messages. Among others, the BBC has reported on this here. Of course, for the most part, Facebook users are not aiming for privacy when they use the site. However, the issue here is more about data that is supposed to be private remaining so if a user has marked it as such. If this is not the case, then the user should be made aware of this.

Google’s Gmail not private
The extremely popular free email service provided by Google known as Gmail or Googlemail is being criticised for its attitude to the privacy of its users. An interesting article on this was recently published by the Guardian here. The general message being that Google does not treat any of its users emails as private and none of its users should expect it to be so.

What are the implications?
Well, as user privacy expectations are gradually eroded, it seems the average user will have to assume their online data is tending towards being public, or at least open to use by third parties for whatever ends they see fit. Admittedly, the vast majority of this data, if used at all, is likely to end up being used for some form of advertising, such as targetted ads in search results. The question then becomes more about, whether this type of very specific advertising is a good or bad thing. On the other hand, a minority of the data may end up in the hands of someone far less desirable, and if the data is also being replicated by harvesting web bots or in some form of advertising, it becomes even easier for this data to be accessed with very little effort. This may result in various forms of cyber-crime, such as identity theft, credit card fraud, insider trading, and so on.

So how private is my data then?
A very short answer might be: as private as you want to make it. Another less helpful answer might be: if you want it to stay private, do not put it on the internet. Unfortunately, things are never simple. Many banks and utility companies have seen the benefit in using the internet to reduce costly and less flexible admin overheads. While there are benefits to the end-users as well, such as fast and easy services, it does mean there is a very strong incentive to putting certain details online, especially since organisations who are trying to promote this method of online business often offer financial rewards for complying.