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Privacy advocates warn of host of problems online

While signing up for the latest Internet craze may seem innocuous enough, you may want to think twice before handing over your personal information. Someone may be watching.

As consumer suspicion grows regarding websites privacy policies, many online privacy advocates and government officials, including Maryland Attorney General Doug Gansler, are calling on websites such as Google and Facebook to revamp their policies to protect users.

Gansler, who has met with representatives of several popular sites including Google, MySpace and Limewire, was due to host an event in Potomac last night with Facebook to make parents aware of how they can keep themselves and their kids safe from online predators, hackers and identity thieves.

“What we’re trying to do is have parents get an elementary understanding of how Facebook works, and what are the privacy policies?” said Gansler.

The effort is part of a broader campaign to encourage transparency about where information goes on the Internet and how it is stored for further consumption, he said.

Google moved forward with a controversial privacy-setting change despite a backlash from Gansler, who spearheaded an effort to meet with Google CEO Larry Page before the company enacted the policy March 1. The new policy now tracks users’ online histories and scans their email to better target them for advertisements.

“How is that different from them listening to phone calls and then sending mail to your home based on the content of those phone calls?” Gansler said. “It’s a little spooky. … They’re following you around.”

The revision also sparked concern among online privacy advocates such as Big Brother Watch Director Nick Pickles, who said that companies seek out masses of information in pursuit of economic growth while disregarding consumer rights.

“The current prevalent view across businesses is that the more information they hold the better, and greed is good,” Pickles said. “There’s … an issue with companies taking the view that, ‘We need to capture as much data as possible even though we don’t know what we’ll do with it because of the potential future benefits.’”

Facebook recently said it has access to text messages of users who downloaded the mobile app on their smartphones, but said that users give the company permission when they agree to the terms and conditions.

And this access extends beyond popular Internet powerhouses. Even a small tic-tac-toe game “will allow people to see numbers dialing your phone and GPS information,” Pickles said.

“People are now starting to sit up and go, ‘Hang on a minute. This matters, and I’m not happy with such broad commissions being granted without me fully being aware,’” he said. “You do need proper protection in place for consumers, and that has to come from the government and it has to be directed at companies.”

Last month, President Barack Obama unveiled the Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights, a blueprint for legislation aimed at preventing Internet companies from accessing users’ information.

In the bill, Obama highlighted the importance of allowing consumers greater control over how their information is spread and increased transparency regarding privacy policies.

“As the Internet evolves, consumer trust is essential for the continued growth of the digital economy,” Obama said in a news release. “For businesses to succeed online, consumers must feel secure.”

But just as users’ information becomes more readily available across the web as a result of these expansive policies, access to public records is becoming increasingly limited.

Last month, for example, Maryland legislators amended a bill that would limit public access to records of ongoing research at public institutions. As the bill stands, those who request access to a public record “produced or collected by a faculty member” will be denied.

Many online users, such as Marcie Kramer of Burtonsville, said they feel apprehensive when sending out their personal information.

“Almost all the time if you’re dealing with some company and they have a statement on their site, there is a whole privacy statement on there,” Kramer said. “So I read that and just say, ‘OK, I’m trusting you,’ but there’s a little nagging feeling that maybe sometimes it might” not be secure.

She added that the digital age has created an intense dependency on the Internet as a means of communication, especially among younger generations who are more likely to shoot a text than make a phone call.

“When I was growing up, obviously when we communicated, we communicated differently — we communicated by talking on the phone,” Kramer said. “Our discussions were either in person or on the phone, and that’s it. There weren’t any other ways. But now, you’re doing the online chatting and the texting.”

Armed with the knowledge that online sites use their information to market themselves more effectively to them, some users, such as Stuart Kramer of Burtonsville, said they know better than to let their information flow freely throughout the web.

“I would prefer to limit that access because … if they’re sharing that information, they’re doing it generally for profit, royalty, commission, so their primary incentive is not to protect your information,” Kramer said. “I think it would be good to have some level of protection where the consumer is in control of sharing of the information and giving approvals where necessary.”

Another user, Tiffany Le, a Silver Spring native who attends the University of Maryland, said she removed her phone number from her Facebook page after receiving a deluge of unwarranted phone calls.

“On Facebook, I just put down my name and email,” Le said. “I think it’s really dangerous to put down your address.”

One comment

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