Take steps to secure what little online privacy you still have

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Before you can take steps to protect your privacy, you need to define just what the word means. And the second task can be more difficult given the spread of social-networking tools and Big Brother legislation such as CISPA.

Microsoft's recently launched privacy-awareness campaign includes a survey ostensibly designed to help consumers determine their "privacy type," based on how they use the Internet and how they perceive privacy concerns. The campaign is a subtle attack on its primary rival, Google, but it also enables Microsoft to ascertain the public's thoughts on privacy and how people go about protecting theirs.

While the very concept of privacy is rapidly evolving, you can protect yours with a combination of discretion and knowing how to use available privacy-protection tools.

Is privacy even possible today?

Privacy? LOL

Privacy is in danger of being rendered quaint. Cameras note your presence at virtually every intersection and place of business. Your smartphone betrays your general location when it connects to the nearest cell tower. You disclose your exact location each time you use a debit or credit card. And unless you pay cash, your every purchase is recorded and tracked. The NSA eavesdrops on online communications, and the IRS recently asserted it has the legal authority to do the same.

What privacy?

Services such as Rapleaf and BeenVerified have built entire businesses on making public information more accessible. You’d be surprised how much someone can find out about you from public records such as contest submissions; speeding citations and parking tickets; mortgage loan, real estate, and automobile transactions; child support orders, criminal records, and much more. You might consider all this information personal, but it's openly available to anyone who bothers to look for it.

How personal privacy impacts business

When it comes to social networks, the seemingly innoculous actions of employees at every level have the potential to disrupt a business. When a Verizon or AT&T store employee posts a Facebook update complaining that their vacation plans have been nixed due to a mandate that all everyone has been put on call can put the world on alert that something big is coming up, such as a new iPhone launch.  

That’s just one example. Business managers and owners must convey to their employees the implications of sharing too much information. While you can't prevent an employee from publicly grumbling about disrupted vacation plans, you can suggest how they phrase their complaint so that it doesn't reveal sensitive information.

On the other side of the equation, business owners and managers must also understand their customers' privacy concerns and how they can manage their expectations. People don’t like to have their privacy infringed upon, but most are more than willing to share all kinds of sensitive information in exchange for something. Just look at how many customer loyalty and discount cards the average person is registered for.

Use the tools you have

Managing privacy isn't a hopeless task. While there are things you can’t control—such as public records and surveillance cameras mounted at intersections—there is plenty of information you can control. Do you really want to share that Vine video of you dancing in your underwear? Beyond discretion, you must stay informed as the best tools for protecting your privacy and how to use them.

Tweeting is an inherently public way of sharing information, but most social networks—including Facebook and Google+—provide users with a variety of options for controlling how their information is shared and who is allowed to see it.

Obviously, Microsoft would like businesses and consumers to accept the premise that Microsoft's services are inherently more private than Google’s. Whether or not you agree with that assertion, it's incumbent upon you to ensure you don't share information you don't want to be made public, and to use the tools that are available to protect the information you do share.

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