Consumer Law

Can Information Shared Online Ever Be Private?

By E.A. Gjelten, Author and Editor
It seems nearly impossible to protect your privacy online, but there are steps to take, resources to help, and some legal protections.

These days, when apps on our smartphones collect information about everything we’re doing, and even governments and big corporations have trouble protecting their data, maintaining any semblance of privacy when you go online can seem next to impossible. Whether you realize it, whenever you use a computer or smartphone, you’re giving information about yourself to someone. And who has the time to read book-length privacy policies before hitting the “Agree” button to use websites or apps?

But there are steps you can take, resources to help, and—depending on the context—some legal protections. To learn more about the risks and what you can do to protect yourself, a good place to start is the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, a nonprofit organization that provides basic tips on how to take control of your personal information and use the Internet safely.

Read on for information about a couple forms of electronic communication that commonly involve privacy concerns: email and social media.

Email

It’s a federal crime to snoop on email in real time, but that doesn’t stop hackers. By now, most people know that email is not secure unless they use sophisticated encryption software. And that’s assuming you’ve accessed your email from your own device; checking it from a shared computer—like one at the library—presents its own security risks.

People like hackers aren’t the only ones interested in your private information. The government has expanded authority under the Patriot Act to access personal data, including electronic communications. Some Internet service providers reserve the right to monitor and disclose email content whenever they believe it’s reasonable to do so. Also, your employer probably has the right to monitor your work emails.

Social Media

What about social media sites like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram? Some courts have held that people have a “reasonable expectation of privacy” in their private messages on Facebook. Even the content of Facebook posts, including pictures, can be considered private—if the user has strong privacy settings.

Users who have what courts consider a reasonable privacy expectation might be able to stop law enforcement from viewing their social media accounts. Or they might be able to sue for invasion of privacy—for example, if school officials gain unauthorized access to information and share it with others.

But beware: Not all courts agree on these matters. You typically can’t expect that anything you’ve posted on social media sites will stay private, especially when others have re-posted or shared it.

If you’re involved in a divorce, custody battle, criminal case, or any other legal proceeding, the other side might well be able to gain access to anything you’ve posted on a social media platform, as well as email, texts, and instant messaging (IM). The “discovery” process allows litigants to access all kinds of information that’s relevant to the case. And courts have generally held that most social media, email, text, and IM information isn’t protected by any right to privacy.]

To learn more about your privacy rights in other areas of life, see Protecting Your Privacy: An Overview.

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