Thursday, March 10, 2011

Personal Privacy

I will never forget the morning when the telephone rang and at the other end of the line was a typically pleasant representative from the Canada Revenue Agency. She went on to explain, without going into details, that my identity had been assumed by someone else. I knew this was not a good thing. I wondered why they had chosen my identity to steal. I then wondered how they could have done such a thing. I am a relatively private person living a pretty quiet life. Then it hit me. I had decided to discard about 20 boxes of files which were old and useless, or so I thought. Rather than take the time to shred thousands of sheets of paper, I thought the recycle bin would be the "green' way to handle this disposal. Naive as this decision was, it is a solution many of us select far too often.

Fortunately for me, this attempt at using my social insurance number for ill-gotten gains was thwarted and no harm was done. I have a paper shredder in my office now and understand first hand the hollow sinking feeling one gets when one's personal information becomes public.

Individuals rummaging through landfills is not the only way we expose ourselves to identity theft. With the deluge of social networking which has swept the globe, we have more and more ways to share information with "the public". Some of us try to interact with friends, old and new, through such sites as Facebook and Twitter. There are ways to control what information is available to whom, but in this fast paced world of new found avenues of communication, we forget to engage those controls. In our excitement we share far more information with many more people than we may want or realize.

There are factors such as age and inexperience which become part of the equation as well. Because we can hide behind the great wall of the internet, we too often say things we would not say face to face. Once the 'send' button is pushed, there is no retracting our words. In some cases we can delete our entries, but a lot of times we don't. We take a certain delight in expressing ourselves in an uncivil way, forgetting that the world is witnessing our indiscretions.

One devastating result of these actions is a function of their permanence. Cyberspace lives on for eternity. People who want to find out more about us have access to virtually everything we've ever written online. What we may find amusing and harmless one day, we may regret the next. Potential employers may shy away from applicants who show little or no discretion in their on line lives. These behaviors are viewed as personality traits and reflect poorly on one's character when applying for a job requiring tact, civility and discretion.

Common sense dictates that whatever you share on a social networking site is in the public domain. It requires very little technical know-how to review anyone's posts and comments on any blog or topic they may have written. As enthusiastic as we are, my advice is to post nothing on line you would not say face to face to someone. Information of a personal nature does not belong in a public forum of any kind.

Times when it might be best to exercise additional caution before posting something on line, or before answering an email, would be when you are under stress. Receiving disturbing personal or business news can cause us to react abruptly. We may be given to responding to such news without fully thinking our thoughts through. Additionally there are times in our lives when we feel overwhelmed, depressed, and exhausted. Before pressing the 'send' key, set your remarks aside for a period of time. Revisit them and make adjustments as necessary. You may save yourself considerable embarrassment. A reasoned response is generally better than a knee-jerk reaction.

Above all, be aware of how you are feeling and what you are trying to communicate before you actually do anything. Take a little extra time to be sure that the tone of your message is appropriate. Try to stick with the facts and avoid inserting your feelings about those facts. Stating your feelings is important, but it is equally important to recognize that your feelings are not the facts themselves and are best communicated in private. Be cautious with what you share whether it be in what you write or in what you throw away!