What does the internet know about me?

Have you ever signed up to an online-shop newsletter just to gain access to the members-only promotions – and then brushed past the terms and conditions? Maybe it’s time you read the small print so you know exactly what you’re getting yourself into.

When you make purchases online for products or services, or even simply visit a website, these websites may collect information about you, referred to as personal information. Depending on the site you’ve visited, this personal information could be anything from your name and ID number to your health information. Personal information is ‘information relating to an identifiable, living, natural person or an existing juristic person,’ says Novation Consulting.

Other data that qualifies as personal information include:

  • Demographic information (such as race, gender, age, education, profession, occupation, income level and marital status)
  • Contact details
  • Financial information
  • Background or historical information
  • Usernames and social media handles
  • Biometric information (related to human characteristics, such as fingerprints)
  • Preferences and opinions
  • Behavioural information
  • Correspondence

While you may not know it, many organisations such as banks, travel companies and supermarkets store data about you. But how did they receive this data and are there rules regarding how they can use it?

How is your personal data collected online?

The Protection of Personal Information Act, 4 of 2013 (POPIA), regulates how companies can collect information about you and in what ways they are allowed to use it. Although the full Act has not come into effect yet, many organisations have already started implementing the regulations.

‘The purpose of the POPIA is to protect the constitutional right to privacy of people by ensuring that personal information is processed in a manner that ensures its confidentiality and that a person’s privacy is respected,’ says Compuscan.

In its White Paper, Novation Consulting states that the general rule is that companies must collect information directly from you and with your consent if they intend to use your details for electronic direct marketing (such as SMS or emails). They’ll also need consent if they intend to pass your details on to another company. Consent usually appears in the form of an opt-in button or when you accept a website’s terms and conditions. However, the above does not apply to physical communication such as telephone calls.

The organisation must, however, clearly state how your information will be used online – for example, entering your physical address will only be used to deliver your goods to you – and whether this usage is justified legally, says Novation Consulting. You should be able to find this in the organisation’s privacy policy.

However, there are some exceptions. Information does not need to be directly obtained from you if:

  • You made your information publicly available online, for example on LinkedIn
  • Your information is available in a public record
  • Collecting your information is crucial for law-enforcement purposes
  • Collecting your information directly is not reasonably practical in the circumstances
  • You consented to the use of another source

If your personal information is obtained by an organisation, POPIA also asserts that you should have access to it and be able to change and delete your own personal information, unless an exception applies.

Why should you care?

It’s important to protect your personal information in order to:

  • Avoid identity theft
  • Keep your financial records safe
  • Maintain a positive reputation online in case prospective employers are researching you
  • Avoid being scammed or robbed
  • Stay in good standing with your insurer

How can I find out what information about me is publicly available online?

The quickest way to check is to do a search for your name, email address or other identifiers on Google and other search engines, says HowStuffWorks, which can help you manage your online reputation.

However, there are data-collection sites and people-finding sites that store your personal information, building profiles from information gleaned across the web. It’s a bit trickier to get your information removed from these sites, but what you can do instead is start cleaning up your social media and other online accounts for any bits of private information other than your name that you may have included. Be sure to check that your settings on any online account are set to maximum privacy.

The key thing to remember is that even if something is advertised as free online, it usually isn’t. It’s up to you to decide whether the personal-information handover fee is worth it.

The information is shared on condition that readers will make their own determination, including seeking advice from a healthcare legal professional. E&OE.


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