You always see the blue link that leads to the privacy policy at the bottom of company websites but never really understood what such statement means. Just what is a privacy policy? How does it impact my usage of the site? In what ways is a privacy statement used in our society?

What is a privacy policy?

A privacy policy is a legal document that discloses all of the ways in which a website uses information that it gathers about users. Anything from credit card numbers to home addresses is covered under the policy. All reputable sites have a privacy statement that users can access at any time during their visit.

How did it come about?

Believe it or not, there was a time when privacy disclosures did not exist. The statements were not that popular during the early years of computer technology when people primarily used the web for research. However, with this new generation using the Internet for everything from restaurant reservations to bill payments, it has become necessary to implement rules that tell companies how much information can be shared with affiliates.

Although the urgency to create statements did not come until the turn of the century, the concept of privacy disclosure was birthed in 1968. It was during this time that the Council of Europe began to study the ways in which human rights were infringed upon when individuals used computers. There was also fear of vital information being spread to other countries that were not allied with Europe. In efforts to preserve national safety and protect common rights, the United Kingdom began to discuss measures that could be taken to regulate the amount of information that could be involuntarily shared. The result that came about was the Convention for the Protection of Individuals with regard to Automatic Processing of Personal Data, which was established in 1981. From there grew the privacy policies that we enjoy today.

Why is a privacy policy important?

Privacy statements are important to subscribers because they give a sense of security. You will probably be more inclined to give your name and address on a site that shares what it plans to do with such information than give personal information to a company that does not tell you anything about its privacy standards.

Legal documents online can be compared to a public notice on over-the-counter medication that releases the maker from any liability associated with side effects caused by the product. The notice, in essence, prevents the creator from being sued if a consumer purchases the product and experiences any of the foretold side effects. In the same manner, a company cannot be sued when they distribute your name and address to other businesses if it has already informed you of its plans in the privacy policy.

What if I choose not to read the policy before supplying personal information?

Reading a website’s privacy policy is your legal right. Opting to read the disclosure before you give vital information can save you the hassle of requesting a company to remove your name and address from its database. What if you later discover that you disagree with any portion of the statement? You cannot hold a company liable for damages if you failed to read the policy in its entirety before registering or purchasing products online.

So when can I hold a company liable for damages?

A business may only be held liable for damages incurred if it violated the terms of its policy. Customers can, for instance, sue an online bookstore for storing and distributing credit card information if it has vowed to keep such data private.

Is a privacy policy only good for suing?

No. Many parents will find that privacy statements protect children from exploitation. Apple, for instance, does not store any information on children under 13-years-old. In addition, most reputable sites do not even allow small children to obtain personal accounts.

How does a company determine who is old enough to fully patronize its site?

Modern technology allows businesses to enforce age limits set in their privacy statements. Google, for instance, uses algorithms to determine the year in which a potential subscriber was born. The equation shuts out individuals whose age falls short of the set limit.

What about cookies?

Cookies are small pieces of data that are stored in your web browser. Although technology is becoming more proficient in an age where identity theft is rampant, it has not developed the ability to prevent all hackers from accessing personal information. This is the reason why most privacy policies have a section dedicated to cookies. Many sites only inform you of their use of cookies, while others guarantee a certain level of protection in addition to sharing various techniques used when gathering data online.

What about social media sites like Facebook and Twitter?

Facebook has an entire layout for how they use collected data. The company is constantly updating its policy since it is a unique site that stores a lot of information about its subscribers for extended periods of time. Facebook recently opted to let individuals choose the amount of privacy they desire when updating their status.

The company also made the executive decision to restrict newcomers’ sharing statuses to friends only. This essentially means that individuals who join Facebook will now have to select the public option if they want their updates to be shared with the world. Anyone who has been on the social media site for more than a year knows that you had to select “Friends” if you wanted your status to be private; otherwise, your update was automatically shared with the world.

Facebook has a separate disclosure for advertisements. In addition to the overall policy of the site, information gathered for ads is handled in a special way. Facebook vows to refrain from sharing any pictures or phrases given solely for advertising with third parties. Such a rule is especially important for businesses with original emblems and slogans. Imagine going online and seeing your company’s logo or unique phrase attached to another business! It is for this reason that Facebook strives to keep your information for advertising private.

Although thousands of children under 13-years-old have accounts, Facebook does not encourage online networking for small children. In fact, the company takes several measures to prevent children from conversing with potentially dangerous users, which include giving underage users a filtered version of its site. Although kids may not enjoy a watered-down version of Facebook that restricts what they see, parents breathe a bit easier when they know that their kids are protected by the social media site’s privacy policy.

Similar to Facebook is Twitter, which also has strict privacy guidelines when it comes to children. Although the site’s safety policy is not as detailed as Facebook, Twitter does have certain algorithms in place that prevent kids from conversing with too many strangers.

In addition, Twitter has a feature that allows individuals to hide their profiles from unknown followers. Potential subscribers cannot even begin following those whose status is set on private mode until approved by account owners. Such a feature allows Twitter to maintain its privacy policy which is oftentimes tampered with due to the site’s open design that ordinarily lets anyone follow a person without sending a friend request.

What about Paypal and other financial institutions?

Paypal outlines several precautionary measures in its privacy statement. Not only does the institution promise to never store or share pertinent information with third parties, but it also refreshes your browser after several minutes of inactivity.

Although some view this attribute as one of randomness, Paypal has implemented the feature to uphold its end of the privacy deal. Your account information on display for extended periods of time can be detrimental when using a public access computer. A system that automatically logs you out and refreshes the screen after you walk away keeps your information private and prevents identity theft. Most banks also have features that automatically log customers out after extended periods of inactivity.

Does my email account also have a privacy policy?

Yes. If you look near the bottom of the web page, you will find a link that leads to a legal disclosure that outlines the various ways in which you are being protected by your email host. Since emailing appears to be progressively taking the place of traditional mail, it is important to thoroughly read through a host’s public policy before registering for an account.