Ask The Right Questions: How To Read A Privacy Policy

One important way to protect privacy is to learn in greater detail how a business will utilize your personal information before you provide it.

Personal information may include: your name, home address, home phone number,  email address, your Social Security number, driver’s license number, 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.

A privacy policy must answer the following basic questions:

  • What personal information is collected?
  • Can you review or correct your personal information?
  • What kinds of personal information does the organization collect from you?
  • How is the information used?
  • What security measures are used to protect your personal information?
  • Who will have access to the information?
  • How is the information collected?
  • Web sites can use cookies to track your purchases and the different pages you visited or ads that you clicked on.

Such information can be used to create a more detailed profile on you that may be sold to marketers.

  • Look for a description of the site’s use of cookies or other tracking technology in its privacy policy. For more information on cookies and how to manage them, see the Electronic Privacy Information Center’s cookie page.
  •  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. If additional information is needed, the company should be clear on why its needed and how it will be used.

Consider going somewhere else if you can’t complete the transaction without giving up personal information you think is unnecessary.

A privacy policy should explain how the organization collecting the personal information intends to use it.

  • Will it be used just to complete the transaction you requested?
  • If additional uses are intended, you should be given the opportunity to opt out of them. For example, if a merchant plans to use your information to market to you, you should be given an easy way to say no to this.
  • 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”?
  • What choices do you have?

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.

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.

The privacy policy should give a general description of the security measures the organization uses to keep customers’ and visitors’ personal information safe. It should also cover security safeguards that the organization requires its business partners and vendors to use.

  • 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.

  • How long will the organization honor its privacy policy?
  • What is the effective date of the privacy policy?
  • Does the policy state that the organization will honor its current policy in the future? Does it say that if they do change the policy, they will notify customers and site visitors?
  • Does it say they will give customers and visitors a chance to opt out of having their information used according to the terms of the new policy?
  • Who is accountable for the organization’s privacy practices?

Someone in the organization should be responsible for its privacy policy and practices. Does the policy give you someone to contact with questions or concerns? Is there an easy way to contact the right person-by email or by a toll-free phone number?

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.

Originally published by Kamala D. Harris, California’s Attorney General.  Read more here.

Center for Democracy and Technology, “Getting Started: Website Privacy Policies“.

GetNetWise, “How to Read a Privacy Policy“.

Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, “Financial Privacy: How to Read Your ‘Opt-Out’ Notices“.

The University of Texas at Austin Center for Identity, “How to Read a Privacy Policy.”

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