Internet Privacy: How Much Data Does the Net Hold on You?

Concerns about the legal protection of personal privacy and information have been part of the American cultural landscape since the late nineteenth century. In the December 1890 issue of the Harvard Law Review, future Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis (along with Samuel Warren) made an elegant argument establishing privacy as “the right to be let alone.”

Yet in today’s hyper-connected world, where it sometimes seems every thought or experience we have must uploaded to a blog or set adrift on the social media stream as a tweet or a post, it’s become increasingly difficult to let ourselves be alone. Of course, it’s not just photos of our artfully-arranged lunches or funny quips we’re uploading. Every check-in, every new social media registration, every transaction we make sends data into the ether that used to be accessible only by a chosen few.

And the information explosion has become big business. In a world where sites ranging from Facebook to Amazon offer the ability to store a person’s private details, preferences, and financial information, access to that information has become a commodity in its own right.

Marketers used to conduct expensive focus groups, polls and canvassing to gather information on their target demographics. Now they can simply purchase information freely provided to Facebook (which has become the largest database of personal information ever collected) by the same people they’re trying to attract as customers.

While personal financial information remains off the table to third parties (for now), a typical user’s Facebook activity remains a treasure trove of tantalizing information. Where are they shopping? What are they liking? What sites are they researching, building, or buying? What brands, entertainment, and news sites are they using and sharing with their own network of friends and family?

Given that the site has nearly a billion users and collects over 500 terabytes (TB) of data each day, discovering the personal preferences, activities and (more ominously) real-world location information is as simple as firing up one’s browser for a quick search.

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