What kinds of personal information does the organization collect from you? Personal information that businesses and government agencies ask you for may include the following: your name and home address, your home phone number, your email address, your Social Security number, your driver's license number, your financial information, such as credit card numbers, bank account numbers, and household income, your medical information, such as your health insurance plan, diseases or physical conditions, and prescription drugs used, your education and work experience, and other details of your personal life, such as your date of birth, the names and ages of your spouse or children, and your hobbies.
In addition to asking you to provide personal information on a paper or online form, an organization may collect information "automatically" through its Web site. One way to do this is through the use of "cookies." Internet cookies are small text files placed on your computer by a Web site you visit. A cookie contains information on you that your browser saves and sends back to a Web site when you visit it again.
Does the personal information asked for seem appropriate to the transaction? For example, your name, home address, phone number, and credit card number may be necessary for making and shipping your purchase. Your household income and hobbies are not. Pay attention if a business or Web site asks for information beyond what is needed for the transaction. The purpose for the extra information should be clearly stated. Look for an opportunity to opt out of, or say no to, giving the extra information. Consider going somewhere else if you can't complete the transaction without giving up personal information you think is unnecessary.
Does the company or Web site share customer information with other companies? Does it share information with its affiliates or companies in the same "corporate family"?
Look for opportunities to opt out of the use of your information for marketing and the sharing of your information with others. There should be an easy way to opt out, such as calling a toll-free phone number or sending an email.
The Center for Democracy and Technology has created Operation Opt-Out to help you get off marketing lists and limit the sharing or sale of your personal information.5 Their Web site contains forms you can print out and mail or send online to opt out of information sharing by many Web portals, data aggregators, and businesses.
According to Consumer Reports' E-Ratings, the better companies and Web sites do not share personal customer information with other unrelated companies unless the customer consents in advance. 6
An organization may give you the opportunity to review or request changes to the personal information that it has collected on you. Look for instructions on how to do this.
Web sites requesting personal information should use Secure Socket Layers (SSL), the industry standard for protecting private information sent over the Internet. The information is encrypted, or scrambled, into a code. This means that your information can't be read during transmission. Look for signs of security on Web pages where you enter personal information. Look for "https," rather than the usual "http," in the address window. Look for a closed lock icon in the lower right or left corner of your screen. These signs mean the connection is secure. You should remain in this secure zone for the entire checkout process.
Good security also means using strong security measures, such as encryption, to protect personal information when it's stored on company computers. It includes technology and procedures to limit access to customers' personal information to only those who need it to perform their duties.
A Web site may offer assistance with consumer complaints through a "privacy seal" program. The two major programs, TRUSTe and the BBBOnline Relability Program, both require seal holders to follow certain privacy practice guidelines.9 Click on the seal logo for information and assistance on privacy issues.
Center for Democracy and Technology, "Getting Started: Website Privacy Policies".
Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, "Financial Privacy: How to Read Your 'Opt-Out' Notices".
1 The federal Financial Services Modernization Act requires financial institutions and insurance companies to send a privacy notice to customers every year. See the Financial Privacy page on the Office of Privacy Protection Web site for more information. The federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act requires health care providers, health plans, and health insurers to provide patients with notice of the patient's privacy rights and the privacy practices of the covered entity. More information is available from the federal Office of Civil Rights and from the Health Privacy Project. Back to link 1
3 Business and Professions Code section 22575(b)(1). Back to link 3
4 Business and Professions Code section 22575(b)(1). Back to link 4
5 The Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT) is a non-profit policy organization that works to promote democratic values and constitutional liberties in the digital age. They have information for Operation Opt-Out. Back to link 5
6 See Consumer Reports, E-Ratings: A Guide to Online Shopping, Services, and Information, (visited June 2004). Back to link 6
7Business and Professions Code § 22575(b)(2). Back to link 7
8 Business and Professions Code §§ 22575(b)(3) and 22575(b)(4). Back to link 8