Monday, March 12, 2012

Where Everybody Knows Your Name

“Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name.” Many will remember that song from the 1980’s hit TV show “Cheers.” The program and the sentiments expressed in the theme song were popular well before the Internet. Today, rather than wishing that everyone knows your name, many of us are worried that there is very little about us that isn’t known by just about anyone who cares to find out. Our grocer knows what brand of soup we prefer. Our credit card company knows where we travel on business or pleasure. Our book seller knows we many not be doing climate research when we order “The Tropic of Capricorn.” In short most everything we do every place we travel, every item we purchase and even what we chose to read can now be tracked and in many cases it is.

Some of this lack of privacy is a byproduct of efficient business practices. Stores began to use computers to track inventory so when you came in to get that bottle milk and loaf of bread the shelves would be stocked. Since you were paying with a credit card, they could track your specific buying habits and begin to target you with ads for things that you might like. It wasn’t long before they figured out a way to track your purchases even if you paid by cash. So now many of us carry key rings festooned with little plastic cards with bar codes that we gladly let the check out clerk scan when we shop. The reward is a few cents off the bill or savings on the next gas fill up. The price is your privacy.

As more of us are using Facebook and other social media, the amount of very personal information about us is made readily available. It is easy to get so comfortable with social media exchanges that we might post comments or relate experiences that we would never divulge even to a most trusted friend. A good rule of thumb is never to write a post online that you would not be comfortable reading on the front page of the newspaper.

When you sign up for Facebook or other on line service, you are often invited to create a profile. You may wish to keep that information to a minimum. By entering detailed information like your birth date, hometown, workplace and other personal details you give those who may be looking at this information with other than honorable interest to begin to piece together a good base for identity theft. My advice is to keep the information shared in these profiles very sparse.

Almost daily we are asked for and freely provide small bits of information which may seem insignificant. By using the Internet and powerful computers, all these little bits collected over an extended period of time can result in a very detailed profile. Advertisers or other less honorable enterprises exploit that information… sometimes to your detriment.

In many case the horse has left the barn. There is not much we can do to get our privacy back. We can be more diligent about giving out that phone number or email address every time the clerk might ask. We should also pay close attention as our elected officials try to develop laws to control how this information is used.

If you send me your address, date of birth and mother’s maiden name, I will add you to my newsletter.

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