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Your Life, Your Data. Or Is It?

Nicole Ozer,
Technology & Civil Liberties Director, ACLU of Northern California
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November 18, 2009

(Originally posted on Daily Kos.)

When we update our status on Facebook, post those photos on Flickr, or shop for holiday gifts on Amazon, a whole lot happens behind the scenes. The more we do online, the more digital footprints we leave behind. Many sites we visit collect detailed information about us—our politics, hobbies, relationships and more.

Outdated privacy laws often fail to keep your personal information from being shared, sold, or handed over to a snooping government—without a warrant! And the government and some Web companies don’t exactly want us to connect the dots.

Who Protects Your Privacy?

In a nutshell, no one. You might think someone is minding the store and protecting your privacy online. But in reality, the federal law that is supposed to safeguard the privacy of digital communications was written in 1986 — way before the Internet as we know it today even existed. That’s like having traffic laws that were written in the days of wagon trains.

Online companies regularly receive demands for personal information about their users — with little to no judicial oversight. Facebook reportedly receives up to 100 demands each week seeking information about its users. AOL reportedly receives 1,000 demands a month. In 2006, a U.S. Attorney demanded book purchase records of 24,000 customers. (In a show of loyalty to users, the company successfully fought back against the subpoena.) Other companies, like Google, don’t make public how often information about their users is demanded or disclosed.

No one should be forced to choose between using the Internet and keeping their personal information from being misused. We shouldn’t have to pay for these seemingly free online services with personal details about our lives.

That’s where the ACLU of Northern California’s new Demand Your dotRights campaign comes in. It provides a behind-the-scenes look at everything from social networking, to photo sites, to search engines. The campaign helps you connect the dots to see how your favorite online activities make it harder for you to keep your private information, well, private. If you’ve seen our ACLU Facebook quiz, you’re already aware of the problem — but that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Our dotRights video explains the digital information trail and illustrates how personal information is collected throughout our everyday lives. Watch it here.

Then go to the dotRights Action Center to find out what you can do right now to take back control and keep details about your private life from being used, abused, and sold to the highest bidder.

Consumers Care About dotRights, So Businesses and Lawmakers Should Too

Consumers clearly want more control over personal information, so it’s good business for companies to join consumers in demanding a privacy upgrade. A 2009 national telephone survey conducted by the University of California, Berkeley, and University of Pennsylvania revealed that 92% of American adults believe they should retain the right to delete their information from a site, and 69% feel there should be a law that gives people the right to know everything that a website knows about them.

For companies that want to be a part of the solution, the dotRights site includes resources like Privacy and Free Speech: It’s Good for Business. This primer provides real-life case studies and hands-on tips for how businesses can build their reputations—while saving time and money—by protecting customers’ privacy.

Plus, since privacy laws and policies don’t auto-update, there are additional materials to help policymakers.

Privacy Laws Don’t Auto-Update

It’s time for consumers, policymakers, and businesses to work together to define a clear legal and policy framework that fits our modern online world and keeps personal information from being misused. It’s time to demand a privacy upgrade. It’s time to Demand our dotRights.

Join the movement to Demand your dotRights and spread the word.

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