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What’s a privacy policy?

Celeste StewartPrivacy policies are legal notices posted on a Web site detailing how the Web site will use personal information. Privacy policy requirements vary depending on the privacy laws governing the Web site. For example, privacy laws are different in Canada, the United States, and the European Union. Since you may visit Web sites from around the globe, you can't be sure that your privacy is being protected according to your country's laws.

While various laws or even an absence of laws dictate privacy policies, most contain similar information. Privacy policies generally tell you whether the Web site uses cookies or other data mining items, what personal information is collected, how they will use the information, who will receive the information, and how they will protect the information.

Most privacy policies are readily available through a link on the home page, often at the bottom of the page. For example, the Filetonic Web site provides a link to our privacy policy in the "footer" area located at the bottom of all pages. This privacy policy, like many privacy policies on the Internet, is based on US Safe Harbor principles.

US Safe Harbor for Privacy is a framework of data protection principles covering: notice, choice, onward transfer, security, data integrity, access, and enforcement. The safe harbor addresses the stricter privacy requirements of the EU and provides a means of providing privacy protection that meets these requirements. You can read more about Safe Harbor here.

It's important to ready privacy policies so that you completely understand how your personal information is being used and protected. For example, if you purchase a product, you must reveal your credit card number as well as other personal information. Does the Web site have security measures in place to prevent someone accessing their servers and stealing their data?

Even if you aren't going to purchase products from the Web site, you may be giving up personal information simply by landing on their home page. It's not uncommon for IP addresses to be collected and recorded. While not necessarily personally identifiable, some users object to this.

If you can't find a privacy policy posted on a web site, try Googling the Web site's name followed by "privacy policy." For example, typing in "Amazon privacy policy" immediately displays a link to Amazon's privacy notice. Of course, had you scrolled to the bottom of the Amazon home page, you would have found a privacy notice link right next to the copyright notice.

Your assignment as you browse the Internet over the next few days is to start reading privacy policies. These are good measures of a Web site's credibility. As you learn more about privacy issues, come back to for advice covering protecting your privacy. 

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