Do You Trust Your Data Online?

Over the past few years, a major paradigm shift has occurred in how (and where) our data is stored.  We’ve had data online for quite a while – ever since the first “guestbook” applications appeared on peoples’ GeoCities home pages (usually right next to the animated “Under Construction” GIF).

I’m not going to discuss identity theft here – there are already enough posts about that topic. I’d like to discuss the social and professional aspects of our personal data that’s stored online, and the risks involved.

Your Online Profile

It’s important to know what your overall “online profile” looks like.  This can include searches and profiles on Google, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, or a plethora of other sites you may have signed up for.  If someone tries to find you online, what information is exposed?  Embarrassing pictures? Rude comments that you wish you hadn’t made?  Personal information that you might not want everyone in the whole world to know about you?

And don’t forget that potential employers are probably searching you as well. It’s common practice these days.

How do you protect your privacy online? A good idea would be to start searching for yourself on the major search engines and social networking sites.  Make sure to log out of each site before you run your search so you can see what the results would look like to an anonymous internet user.  If anonymous users can see too much, it’s time to start looking into the various privacy settings of each site, or to delete your account.  Facebook has the most comprehensive set of privacy controls I’ve ever seen, but most sites have settings to restrict who can see your posts.

A friend of mine has a good policy – he does not post anything on the Internet if he doesn’t think it’s appropriate to appear on the front page of the New York Times.

Your Data Online

A revolution has occurred with so-called “Software as a Service” or “Cloud Computing.”  More and more, we’re seeing applications going online – first it was E-mail, but now we have Office applications, image editors, virus scanners, and a whole host of other applications – all that run from within your browser with little or nothing stored on your local machine.  There are some great advantages to these, especially in the realm of sharing data and collaborating.  For example, I split all of the utility bills with my roommate each month, and when I receive each bill, I just put it up on a Google spreadsheet so he can view it whenever he wants.

But there’s a caveat – at this time, these apps are online, and your data is stored online.  But what happens if a company goes under, decides to go in a new direction, or simply drops a service? What happens to your data then?  Will you even have a chance to back it up?  According to most of the licenses that you agree to when signing up for services, those companies are under no obligation to do anything to protect your data.  I suppose it’s a good idea to treat online data the same as data stored on your hard drive – always have a backup (see my previous post).  Or what happens if your Internet connection is down for a period of time and you can’t access the services you’ve come to rely on?  Google is making inroads here with their Gears software, which allows websites to run off-line, but it’s still nascent.

It’s important to be careful what you store up in the cloud – whether it’s profile data (address, phone numbers, photos, etc), or more important data such as documents. Don’t take for granted the fact that there could be unintended consequences, and always be prepared for the worst.

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