What to Look for in Privacy Policies to Protect Your Passwords and Personal Information

By Ryan C. Williams

If you don’t understand online privacy policies and how they protect your passwords and personal information it may seem like magic. As you read a website’s privacy statement, ask yourself whether a website’s privacy policy tells you

  • Explicitly what information the website is collecting. Is the site getting your name and address? Your e-mail address? The IP address of your computer? Your credit card number? The combination to your gym locker or to the hidden safe in the den? If the site doesn’t say exactly what information it’s collecting, you should assume the worst.

  • How and from where the site is collecting your information. Does the site use an order form to collect data? Is it buying databases from other advertisers? Is it searching public records down at the county courthouse? Is it paying some nasty-looking guy to tail you?

    You should know from where the site is getting information about you because the amount of information it’s gathering should be appropriate to the service you’re getting. A website that’s selling you a new flamingo for your front lawn doesn’t need to know as much about you as an online mortgage banker does when you’re shopping for a home loan.

  • How your information will be used. Here’s where the worst advertising-speak usually happens. You have to read carefully and be deeply skeptical to figure out what the site is saying because everything it says emphasizes how exciting and wonderful the site’s services are and how thrilled you will be with all the benefits it provides because you’re so willing to share your personal information.

    Will the site customize or personalize its content for you the next time you visit? Will it drive you crazy by sending you catalogs by snail mail and e-mailing you ads by the dozens? Will it sell your personal information to other advertisers? Will it call you at home every week during the last five minutes of The Simpsons?

    If you’re already sick of all the junk mail and spam and phone calls, you need to know this information to decide whether you want to have anything more to do with these sites.

  • Whether and how you can make the site stop collecting information about you. If you don’t want a company to collect information about you, either it can give you a chance to object, or you can take your business elsewhere.

    Some places would rather annoy you and drive you to their competition than give you a chance to make your feelings known. If a site’s policy doesn’t tell you how to stop the data collection, take that as an invitation to visit the competition.

  • How to see what information about you it already has and how to delete it or correct it if it’s wrong. On an episode of the TV show Friends, Chandler Bing receives TV Guide addressed to a “Miss Chanandler Bong.” If Chandler knew how to correct his information, you wouldn’t have plot points from a sitcom inflicted on you here.

  • How the site protects your information. Does the site use encryption to keep bad guys from snatching your personal information as it passes between your computer and its own? Does it have security measures in place to keep people from stealing your information from its databases?

    Sites are sometimes vague about specific security measures, and that’s a good thing. Providing too many specifics gives crooks an edge, and the unknown keeps them guessing. If the site’s policy fails to mention security or doesn’t assert that it’s using industry best practices or some other silver-tongued phrase to reassure you that it’s protecting your data, your privacy and security may be the last thing on its list.

  • Who is responsible for making sure that the site lives up to its promises. Many e-commerce firms have appointed chief privacy officers and other dedicated personnel to manage their consumer information practices and to be the point person in ensuring that all promises made in a privacy policy are honored.

    If a site’s policy doesn’t say who has responsibility for overseeing the privacy of your data, you’re better off assuming that the answer is nobody.

You’ll also want to review the privacy policies for the apps you use on your smart device of choice. Make sure you look at the settings for all of the apps you use and see how they want to use your information.

Scrupulous developers ask you for your permission (usually in an alert where you click Yes or No) to use your information or to gain access to contact information on your phone, but not all app developers may be as scrupulous. Check all the settings for an app, and don’t be afraid to delete apps that don’t play by the rules. Plenty more apps will be available to take their place.