Beware of privacy policies: Time to clean up your digital footprint

Last week, Google tracked the Web sites I visited and, like most technology companies, tried to guess who I was based on the places I visited. Its goal: to target advertising to me. The result? The search engine thought I was a 70-year-old man based in Atlanta.

I am not a man, not 70 and haven’t had the privilege of visiting the Peach State. Google’s guessing game might improve, though, thanks to a change in its privacy policies launched Wednesday. Now all the company’s products are governed by one policy, which lets the company track what I write on Gmail and compare it to what I watch on YouTube — all to better direct ads to me.

The change was met with anger online and caution off. Lawmakers questioned how Google would keep the information safe, and users debated whether they should stop using Google. But Google is far from the only technology company tracking users to predict behaviors.

Privacy policies are a gentleman’s agreement between you and technology companies. They will collect vast amounts of information about you, your habits and even your friends. In return, you assume they will not abuse that information in order to keep your business.

Still, that doesn’t mean you should relinquish control of your digital life. There are things you can do to limit what information companies glean about you. You don’t open your front door and invite advertising companies to traipse through your home; you shouldn’t let them in the virtual back door.

1) Get organized: It’s time to shed the old social sites. There’s no need for my languishing MySpace page. I never visit A Small World. I haven’t visited Picasa because Facebook takes all my photos. It’s about as much fun as organizing your sock drawer, but it’s worth it in the end. Curl up in front of a Downton Abbey marathon and delete your profiles from the sites you’ve stopped visiting. Technology companies might still keep records on you, but you’ll leave fewer online traces for other firms.

2) Switch to one password: For all the sites you still do go to, start tracking where you belong by using the LastPass password manager. It’s a browser add-on that stores all your passwords in one secure spot. It has the added benefit of creating a list of all the sites for which you have passwords for future reference. LastPass will log on for you to every site you visit. Yes, you’re giving one company access to all your passwords. But because security is its business, technology watchers rate the company a safe bet. Plus, it eliminates attempting 20 different spellings of your first pet’s name.

3) Track yourself: Set up Google Alerts (Google.com/alerts) on your name, nicknames or personal businesses. Google will e-mail you any time new information about you is put online. To see what’s out there now, check Pipl.com. It’s a search engine that lets you search by name, address or e-mail. A search on it reminded me of a LiveJournal blog I hadn’t seen in years. I made a copy of my youthful exuberance and deleted it.

4) Stop the spam: I set up a “delete” folder in my Gmail. When a company starts spamming me with newsletters or I find myself on a list I no longer need to be on, I send those e-mails to my delete folder. Whenever another necessary British television series marathon strikes, I jump in and start unsubscribing from the various lists cluttering up my inboxes. (You can also unsubscribe to those unwanted newsletters as soon as they land.)

This dusting off of your digital life won’t stop technology companies from knowing plenty about you. You’re one (wo)man against the machines, but you can control to some extent what social imprint you leave.

 
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