The Perils of Giving out Your Private Information

If a stranger walked up to you on the street and asked you for your name, address and phone number, would you give it out? Of course not. Different people would react differently to such a situation. Some might tell the guy to get lost and others would turn the other way and ignore him and perhaps leave quickly.

Yet, when people are asked for their information over the internet, by strangers, they often react differently. They willingly give their information to strangers, although they should and do know better.

They don’t always do it directly. Sometimes the recipient of their information is known to them, a company they have some reason to trust, or one that is well known and that they have dealt with before.

But all companies don’t necessarily respect the privacy of the people from whom they collect information. Some of them, perhaps many of them, give that information out to others, without the knowledge or consent of the owner of the information. According to the Privacy Commissioner of Canada, they give the information to marketing firms, advertisers, analytics companies, and others.

To some, this may not seem a big deal, and often the only result is that it leads to more spam, which is annoying, but we have spam filters to deal with it. Viruses can be just an annoyance too, and our security software can often identify and delete them. Right?

The problem is those situations that go beyond the annoyance level. And they are a growing problem. That spam can contain viruses, which are often used to gather more information, or truly destructive viruses, which can seriously disrupt our computing life. Also, that innocuous information we gave to get a discount coupon for a new TV can be used by illicit parties to help identify you and then gather more information from other sources, including items like SIN numbers, credit card numbers, even banking information, all of which is often available on other sites. But you’ve given them a roadmap. That’s more than annoying. There are horror stories out there where people’s lives have been ruined because of identity theft.

The Privacy Commissioner released a report late last month in which her office examined the websites of 25 companies, the information they were gathering and what they were doing with it. A small but revealing sample. She pointed out that of the 25, 11 of them led to concerns about their privacy practices, with 6 of them raising serious concerns. Some of the practices appeared to violate the companies’ own privacy policies, leading us to the conclusion that those policies disclosed on websites cannot necessarily be trusted. Others appeared to violate privacy legislation, particularly the PIPEDA Act. The results of the survey are posted on the Privacy Commissioner’s Office website at

The survey points out once again that we need to be extremely careful about the information we give out. The Commissioner is following up on the results, and has the option of taking action under the legislation. Stay tuned.