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Your information on the Internet: What you need to know

Your information on the Internet: What you need to know

Information is the currency of the Internet. Below we list the different ways that your personal information gets online. For tips on how to protect yourself, see Protect your privacy on the Internet.

How your information gets online

Businesses, governments, and other organizations gather data when you:

  • Set up an online account.

  • Make a purchase in an online store.

  • Register for a contest.

  • Take part in a survey.

  • Download free software.

  • Surf the web.

Businesses use this information to help complete a transaction, remember your preferences, deliver personalized content or special offers, or save you time.

Transactions such as signing up for a service or buying something are linked to you—for example, by a shipping address or credit card number. But in most cases, businesses generally collect data that does not identify you by name. Sites track which web pages you visit and the clicks of your mouse, but not you personally.

Before you give your information in exchange for a product or service, check the website’s privacy policy to find out how they keep your information secure. For more information, see Protect your privacy on the Internet.

Personal details about you may be also online because you may have added your own information in resumes, chats, pages on social sites like Facebook, or comments in discussion groups or on Twitter.

Others may have published information about you. Friends may write about you or post photos of you and your family. Records of government agencies are searchable—for example, photos of your house and its value, your birth certificate, and copies of your signature. Church groups, clubs, and professional associations may reveal your full name, workplace, and donation history.

Why you should I care if there is information about me online?

Criminals hunt for your data. They may sell it or use it to tarnish your reputation, harass you, steal your identity, damage your credit, or even jeopardize your physical safety.

  • Thieves push online scams, such as phishing. Criminals also offer gifts, credit repair, virus protection offers, or other enticements in exchange for personal data or money.

  • Thieves harness the power of technology to collect personal data or remotely control your computer. If you open an attachment in a spam email message or download music from certain file-sharing sites, programs may plant spyware on your computer that can let a criminal record any passwords or account numbers that you type.

Online information is searchable and often permanent. Unlike data stored on paper, however, powerful Internet search engines and data aggregation tools can make it easy to pull data together to build a full profile of you.

Once data is published online, it is effectively there forever and, depending on the privacy policy of the company holding the data, may ultimately be seen by anyone on the Internet. Sites may archive anything you have posted in addition to data they have collected from you. Friends (or ex-friends) may give your information out, or hackers and security lapses may expose it. For details about how to safeguard your information on the web, see Protect your privacy on the Internet.