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Being Alert But Not Alarmed Managing Your Information Online
by Alex Cato
‘Nothing comes for free"
In the online realm the well-known adage nothing comes for free applies now more than ever. A lot of online services appear to be 'free' however you may be paying for the service in other ways. You may be paying through:
  • having your eyes attacked by obnoxious advertising,
  • constant requests to share/invite your friends to the service, or
  • by ‘selling’ your information, usage statistics or uploaded content to the service provider and potentially third parties.
In this month's A Bit of Bytes column I will highlight some of the key considerations you should make when using online products and services as well as some techniques to help you manage who has access to your information online. It’s all about being alert but not alarmed.
Why should you be alert? Well I am definitely preaching to the library choir but information has power. Through permissions granted in the fine print of terms and conditions or these days more commonly under a link, it is possible for third parties to possess power that you didn’t realise you were granting. What’s most concerning about these access powers is that unless you know where to turn them off they are often ongoing. It should be noted that these ongoing permissions are not ongoing in the sense that they afford the right to ongoing surveillance but the right to ongoing storage of information gathered whilst using the service. Broad and generalised permission clauses have the potential to facilitate access ‘rights’ which continue long after you have forgotten about them. This access can be used collect and analyse information such as:
  • your online behaviour for the purpose of market research,
  • access the content you create or
  • the contact information of the people you communicate with.
I’m not out to turn anyone into an internet fearing Luddite. I’m encouraging the exact opposite. The services available today are far too amazing to even imagine that you don’t use them. What I want to do with this column is to create awareness of the implications of clicking, swiping or ticking accept will have on who has access to your information.
So, what types of powers are you granting and where are they coming from? They can come from cookies, privacy policies and more comprehensively terms and conditions. But does anyone ever read them? It's an ongoing joke on the internet that no one reads terms and conditions. Back in 2010, the UK company Game (then Gamestation) even turned it into a practical joke. On April 1st 2010 the terms and conditions agreed to by users making online purchases included the following:
“By placing an order via this web site on the first day of the fourth month of the year 2010 Anno Domini, you agree to grant Us a non-transferable option to claim, for now and for ever more, your immortal soul.
Should We wish to exercise this option, you agree to surrender your immortal soul, and any claim you may have on it, within 5 (five) working days of receiving written notification from gamesation.co.uk or one of its duly authorised minions. We reserve the right to serve such notice in 6 (six) foot high letters of fire, however we can accept no liability for any loss or damage caused by such an act...
If you a) do not believe you have an immortal soul, b) have already given it to another party, or c) do not wish to grant Us such a license, please click the link below to nullify this sub-clause and proceed with your transaction."(1)
Over the course of the day 7500 people made purchases and not one clicked the link to nullify the subclause. Whilst handing over your soul to a third party isn’t part of a standard terms and conditions it does serve to highlight that essentially anything can be hidden away in a the depths of the fine print and you can be held to it. Given the global audience of the Informed Librarian I’m not going to try and make some overarching statement with respect of your legal liability when clicking accept, however it is best to treat every ‘accept’ like a contract.
Whilst it would be good practice it’s not really practical to suggest that you read every single set of terms and conditions you come across on the internet because hey, sleep is nice and sort of necessary. However there are two types of permissions you can give away that I want to highlight:
  • Email services and document hosting
  • Apps and third party products, services and games
Email services and document hosting
Unless you own the hardware and the software licencing for the email and document hosting service its highly likely that your information is not really solely yours.
What do I mean? Well as an example let’s look as the Google terms and conditions. When you use Gmail or Google Drive (the cloud storage document management service) or any other Google services you maintain the intellectual property rights for the content. However, and this is a rather big however;
“When you upload, submit, store, send or receive content to or through our Services, you give Google (and those we work with) a worldwide license to use, host, store, reproduce, modify, create derivative works (such as those resulting from translations, adaptations or other changes we make so that your content works better with our Services), communicate, publish, publicly perform, publicly display and distribute such content. The rights you grant in this license are for the limited purpose of operating, promoting, and improving our Services, and to develop new ones. This license continues even if you stop using our Services (for example, for a business listing you have added to Google Maps). Some Services may offer you ways to access and remove content that has been provided to that Service. Also, in some of our Services, there are terms or settings that narrow the scope of our use of the content submitted in those Services. Make sure you have the necessary rights to grant us this license for any content that you submit to our Services.”(2)(Emphasis added)
Now despite knowing this I still use Gmail and a bunch of other Google services and will continue to use the services. Why? Because they are convenient, well designed and meet a recognised need that I have to access my emails and documents on the go. However, I don’t use these services blindly. Certain documents stay on the memory stick rather than being emailed to myself so that I can access them remotely. Because while there’s most definitely a trillion to one chance that anyone within these third party services will even glimpse at those documents – it’s mine and I want it to stay that way.
Top considerations when using internet based email and document management services
  • Consider whether the information be stored online or more locally such as on an external hard drive.
  • If you are going to keep sensitive documents on these services make sure that you read the policies. Even though it's not practical to read all of them these are ones you should read!
  • Check up on a company’s privacy practices using services like Truste (http://www.truste.com/consumer-privacy/trusted-directory/).
    Truste allows you to search by URL or company name through a directory of companies that abide by best practice privacy principles. Truste also has a widget for your browser (Firefox only) which alerts you to the existence of an Cookies and tracking software monitoring what you do online.
  • Audit who has your email – be an ‘unsubscriber’. Are you now on a list because of an online purchase you made back in 2006? Don’t delete it - unsubscribe
  • Finally the most basic but core thing to do is keep your internet security up to date.
Apps and third party products, services and games
Sometimes apps permission requests can be just as demanding as Rumpelstiltskin. You’ve installed the app and already committed, to a degree, to the app by paying the data cost to download only to be faced with a notice that “This app requires access to: your contact list, account information, location services”.....and your entire life (mwahaha!). Faced with this request every time you download an app you invariably select accept. However how long does this access last and how can you 'undo' it?
You should refresh and reassess what third parties you have given permission to access your online accounts and devices. Below are a list of some of the tools available online to help you manage your information online(3):
  • MyPermissons (http://mypermissions.org/) audits your Google+, Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare, LinkedIn and other accounts to see who you have provided access to the account. You may be very surprised with what it comes back with – I have apps for Facebook quiz’s I did back in 2009 still on that list.
  • Audit what you have installed on your devices – Haven't used an app in a while? Uninstall it.
  • If it look sketchy odds are it is – Look at the details of the app. If there aren't many details on the app, no reviews, no pictures, no publishers details etc. and it is asking for access to everything on your device I strongly recommend giving it a miss.
  • Google Terms of Service (http://www.google.com/intl/en/policies/terms/) accessed on 9 August 2014.
  • Bearing in mind that all of these services have their own terms and conditions and may need to access your information in order to be used.
Copyright 2014 by Alex Cato.
About the author:
I’m a Research Librarian working in the legal industry. I have a Bachelor of Arts in Communication (Honours) from the University of Technology Sydney (UTS) and am currently doing Juris Doctor (post-graduate law degree). I am an active member in the Australian Law Librarian’s Association (ALLA) and currently sit on the New South Wales Division Committee as Web and Social Media Co-ordinator.
I am passionate about technology, especially social communication tools and how they can be adopted to facilitate effective and efficient organisational communication. I’m also interested in how they are adopted by members of the library and information industry.
I’m active on Twitter at @Curious_Meow and have my own blog at curiousmeow.wordpress.com
Also I’m new at this so if you have a technology topic or issue you would like me to talk about let me know via twitter or email (alexandracato@gmail.com).

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Last Updated on 01/06/2014