Privacy worries? Google shouldn't be your biggest fear

Summary:The bigger threats to compromising your privacy are you, your friends and your family - they're posting about you on social networks, too.

I've been thinking a lot about privacy lately, mostly about my own comfort levels with what's known about me from my Internet footprint. Granted, there's a lot of information about me on the Web - mostly because of my work as a tech journalist - so I'm not really all that paranoid anymore.

Maybe that's why I tend to not buy into a lot of the Google bashing that goes on over privacy and the suggestion that Google is spying on us and stealing our information so that they can do something sinister with it - like make money and provide online services that impact our daily lives. I've been using free GMail, Google Maps and Google Search for years and I've yet to have my identity stolen, my personal data compromised or my trash sifted through by a stalker who tracked me down because I used Google Maps for driving directions.

Here's what's funny: When it comes to being worried about the information being made available about me on the Web, it's not Google that I'm worried about. It's me that I'm worried about, the guy who's posting regularly on social networks. It's my family and friends and what they might be saying - or posting - about me on their pages. It's all of you, the readers, and what you're saying about me in the comments or in your own blogs. (Yup! Easily searchable.)

This might explain why I was particularly intrigued by something that was said by author and social media expert Brian Solis at the Latinos in Social Media conference in Silicon Valley over the weekend. Solis, who was talking about how people engage in social media sites like Facebook and Twitter, suggested that people who are concerned about privacy on the Internet don't really understand how social media works.

His point was that we all have three lives: our public lives, our private lives and our secret lives - and it's up to each one of us to determine what sort of information we put out there about ourselves. Solis got a great laugh when he noted that Congressman Anthony Weiner just screwed up because he forgot which life he was broadcasting on Twitter.

All laughs aside, I think Solis made an excellent point - and his suggestion that we have three types of lives got me thinking about privacy again. Could I actually place every detail about my life into one of those three categories? Would there be overlap? How would I control it? I actually put some thought into it - and here's what I came up with:

My Secret Life: To me, secret almost seemed like the incorrect word here because it implies that I'm doing something wrong in my life and am trying to keep people from finding out. Sure, maybe we all have something that fits into that category - but I thought that "My Secret Life" would be better as "Stuff in my life that's none of your damn business." What sort of details would I put in there? Well, for starter's my social security number and my personal finances would fall into that category. Of course, those aren't necessarily "secret" details. I share this kind of information with my wife, my accountant, my bank and the IRS. I might broadcast on my social networks that I've taken a new job but I'm certainly not going to announce my salary at that new job.

My Private Life: Again, thinking about what I would share on social media, I would think that things like my home address, my kids' names or my mother's maiden name would be private. Certainly, I'm limiting how much of this information I put online. But as your family, neighbors and even your teenage kids start popping up on social networks more often, checking in and snapping pics all the while, it's harder to keep some details quiet. Here's how I see it: I'm not renting out a billboard on the side of the freeway to advertise any information about myself - but I'm also not losing any sleep if my daughter's friend "checks in" at our house.

My Public Life: How old am I? Where did I go to school? Where have I worked? I have no problem with my resume being online. (In fact, it is.) What are my thoughts about the iPad, Google, Facebook? Clearly, I have no problem posting those thoughts to the Internet, given my work for ZDNet. What kind of music do I listen to? What do I watch on TV? Which way do I lean politically? If you're my Facebook friend (or my wife's), you already know these things about me.

Speaking of politics, my thoughts about privacy popped up again last week when the news media began to salivate over the release of the Sarah Palin e-mails, hoping to outscoop each other with some juicy detail - only to find that there really wasn't a there there. I don't have much respect for Palin, her politics or her loose-cannon style of speaking before thinking - but I do think the media frenzy was a bit too much. Palin has proven that she's savvy enough to recognize the difference between her three lives and has worked hard to manage them.

She wouldn't have gotten as far as she has if Secret Life stuff had slipped into the Public Life stream, right?

Topics: Legal, Google, Social Enterprise

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