Just how private is your data?

You might not know it, but today marks the second annual international Data Privacy Day. So Happy DPD.

And what happens on DPD? Not a whole lot, as far as I can tell. State legislatures issue proclamations declaring it Data Privacy Day. Intel has a site dedicated to the event, as does Microsoft. Google, on the other hand, is commemorating Jackson Pollack's birthday. (Insert your own conclusions here.)

But otherwise: No balloons, no ticker tape parades. Aretha isn't wearing a ridiculous hat and belting out America the Beautiful. We aren't all watching CNN and breathlessly updating our Facebook profiles.

In fact, you probably have just a tiny bit less privacy than you did yesterday. And you'll have even less tomorrow.

Along those lines, I did finally connect with Harrison Tang, CEO and co-founder of Spokeo, which I wrote about earlier this week (see "Social Media Search: A stalker's paradise?").

Tang explained some of the problems I was having - including the fact that most of my efforts to contact them went into the ether. It turns out Spokeo's contacts page was buggy. (It's since been fixed.) As for my problems importing email addresses, it turns out Spokeo has built in limits on how many names you can import into it at once; the system automatically cuts out after the first 1000 email addresses, so the servers aren't overwhelmed. (They also had a few bugs to swat there as well.)

Tang says Spokeo has over a million users, though he declines to say how many of them are paying $3 to $5 a month for the service. Free users are limited to viewing only a handful of profiles, and those are chosen by Spokeo's software, not you.

I asked him whether he thought Spokeo was violating people's privacy by aggregating information about them in ways they probably aren't aware of, even though they posted all this information about themselves voluntarily.

He pointed out that Spokeo is actually better than most search engines in how it deals with privacy issues.

"If you make your profiles private, our system will understand the privacy level of the sites where your profiles are kept and update the cache to remove your data," says Tang. "With some search engines, once something is out there in public it's public forever. Our system will respect the privacy level of your profile and change it accordingly."

Of course, first you have to figure out which photos, videos, tweets, blog entries, wish lists, musical preferences, and other information is already out there. Using Spokeo, of course, is an easy way to find out.

And if you don't want to change all the privacy settings for your Facebook, Twitter, Linked In, and myriad other social media profiles, Tang says you can contact Spokeo directly and ask them to remove your data from their cache. He says he hasn't gotten any requests like that yet, but he and his four coworkers at Spokeo will be glad to handle them on a case by case basis. (You can send such requests to feedback [at] spokeo [dot] com or by visiting their feedback page.)

The larger point here, as Data Privacy Day draws to a close, is that the biggest threat to your privacy isn't search engines like Spokeo or Google. It isn't spammers or identity thieves. It isn't rapacious marketers or the spooks at the NSA. It isn't your creepy neighbor peering through the blinds or your ex-spouse's divorce attorney.

For a different prespective try:

What the Web knows about you

The biggest threat to your privacy is you, your own bad self.

The next time you feel like tweeting your every fleeting thought, inviting the world to be your friend on Facebook or MySpace, uploading your resume to Linked In, posting reams of images on Flickr or YouTube, sharing your love of Abba on iLike or Last.fm or Pandora, or any of the other countless things you do online each day without thinking about it -- stop and think about it.

Think about who might be reading, clicking, and watching. Do you want complete strangers knowing all these things about you? How about people mining this data so they can do a better job of selling you detergent or, just possibly, putting you on a watch list? Because that's what's going to happen next, if it hasn't happened already.

It's not paranoia. It's life in the Internet lane. And so far, at least, this stuff is still largely in your control.

Now: What are you going to do about it?

Dan Tynan talks about privacy so much his wife is sick to death of hearing it. When not driving his family crazy, he tends his blogs, Culture Crash and Tynan on Tech.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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