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Privacy Is Important But What's Wrong With Letting People Share?

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There has been a lot of debate and handwringing over whether the Internet and social media have redefined "privacy," but while the Internet makes it easier to share, it doesn't force us to share. It's a matter of making choices and balancing the benefits of sharing with the risks, whether significant or trivial.

Recently, Consumer Reports made a big deal out of millions of people using Facebook's "Like" button to publicly acknowledge their interest in pages about medical conditions, for example. Some shared their birth dates, and others where they plan to go on a certain day or even their location at that very moment.

It would be bad if Facebook forced people to share that information, but what's wrong with allowing them to? Sharing your birth day almost certainly brings you birthday greetings, and though it could contribute to identity theft, it probably won't. Lots of people are anxious to share their travels with friends and even strangers, which, in theory, could be used against you by a burglar, but the odds of that actually happening are awfully low.

While I'm a big supporter of federal laws that require medical providers to protect patient privacy, there's no law against talking publicly about your own conditions. For some, it's a great way to get support and potentially life-saving advice. Jeff Jarvis publicly blogged about his prostate cancer and his heart arrhythmia and said he "gained tremendous benefit (by) sharing." He learned from others and he hopes "to be one more guy to convince you men to get your PSA checked." That strikes me as a good thing.

In its story, Consumer Reports warned people about "liking" a page about a medical condition because it could reveal "details an insurer might use against you," but insurance companies already know all about our medical conditions. They document each procedure and -- as many people sadly know -- those records are often used to deny coverage or raise your rates if you change policies or even if you change companies. Disclosure: I'm co-director of ConnectSafely,org, a nonprofit Internet safety organization that receives financial support from Facebook, Google and other tech companies.

People worry about what they choose to share on Facebook but may not even think about what they're already sharing with corporations. Several years ago -- long before the advent of social networking -- I made a last minute decision to fly from New York to Los Angeles instead of flying home to the Bay Area. As I lunched at Jerry's Deli in Studio City I realized that no one, not even my family, knew where I was, but the airline and the rental car company did. My credit card company knew where I had been and what I bought and my cell phone knew my location and who I spoke with. Those loyalty cards we use at grocery stores to save a few pennies reveal what we buy. Do you worry whether the store will tell your health insurance company about the junk food you buy? That's not likely, but Safeway's privacy policy says, "We may also share personal information with our affiliate companies."

Facebook could -- if it wants to -- compile a dossier on its members that paints a pretty good picture of who they are, how they live their lives and who their friends are, but to do that, the company would have to rely mostly on information you chose to share on its service or affiliated apps and web pages. It could violate its own privacy policies and illegally reveal that information without your permission but so could banks, insurance companies, phone companies, grocery stores and even medical providers. And all of these companies can and will disclose this information to courts or government authorities if served with the proper papers.

I'm not completely blasé when it comes to privacy and the Internet. I am worried about how many mobile and social networking apps we entrust with personal information, including our location and phone records, and that some store this information on servers that could be hacked or even turned over to third parties. I worry about whether the developers of these hundreds of thousands of apps have good security and, of course, there is reason to even worry about security of major companies and government agencies -- like Sony and the Veteran's Administration -- whose security has already been breached. I worry about the government possibly misusing warrants and subpoena powers to access my information or the passage of new laws to make it even easier for government agencies to access personal data.

I don't think web tracking is necessarily a bad thing if it's used to target ads that you'll find more relevant and that help subsidize valuable free ad-supported services, but I do agree with the Obama administration that we should have the ability to know if we're being tracked, who is tracking us, what information they're collecting and the ability to stop or control it.

This article first appeared in the San Jose Mercury News and on my Forbes blog

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