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Ask Laz

Is Internet privacy a lost cause?

Apple iCloud
Nude celebs aside, where's the outrage over all our personal info online?
Can you protect your privacy online? @Davidlaz has the answer
Protecting your online privacy is like playing Whac-A-Mole

Ria says she recently Googled her name and discovered that her age, address and phone number were readily available online.

"Who puts this information on the Web?" she asks. "Is there anything I can do about this?"

Internet privacy is very much in the news after nude photos of possibly dozens of celebrities were swiped from their Apple iCloud accounts. A spokeswoman for Jennifer Lawrence, whose photos were among those hacked, called the incident "a flagrant violation of privacy."

ASK LAZ: Smart answers to consumer questions

It was. Yet that same level of outrage doesn't seem to exist for the ease with which people's personal information makes the cyber-rounds. Clearly there are different levels of privacy when it comes to the Net.

In answer to Ria's question, people's personal information is available in public documents such as lawsuits, marriage records and property deeds.

So-called data brokers sift such records and combine what they find with other records, such as financial transactions, to create alarmingly thorough dossiers on our consumer habits.

Then there are the "people search" companies that aggregate such information and make it available online. They typically offer tidbits for free and more complete records for a price.

Some companies attempt to profit from public records by posting people's mug shots online and then charging a fee to take them down.

What can you do?

In the case of Jennifer Lawrence and other celebs, my advice is simple: Don't take nude photos with your wireless device. I mean, really.

For the rest of us, it's pretty much a lost cause. Unless you want to play Whac-A-Mole with individual sites, petitioning each to take down your personal information, you might have to resign yourself to the fact that we have precious little privacy online.

I routinely opt out of having my information shared by the companies I do business with. I'm on the do-not-call list. I have an unlisted phone number. I take all the steps available to protect what little privacy I have.

But the Internet has changed the equation, and the plain fact is that it's perfectly legal for websites to take public information and put it online. Google, in turn, makes it easy for anyone to find that info.

If there's a particular site that's bothering you, go through its opt-out process.

But don't be surprised when the same info appears on another site a few days later.

If you have a consumer question, email me at asklaz@latimes.com or contact me via Twitter @Davidlaz.

 

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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