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Whether you are shopping online for a collector’s item or simply shopping for a pair of socks, any number of entities could be collecting your personal and general information. Your internet service provider, browser, search engine, any website you visit, and affiliates/third-parties can collect and store your information for marketing, research, or other purposes. Consumers are often unaware of the type of information that is collected, how much is collected, and who it is shared with. But many websites post their privacy policies that detail some of these important considerations.

How Information Is Collected
Websites can collect information that you voluntarily provide to them or they can use a number of tools such as cookies, web beacons, and/or other technologies to collect your information. Cookies are small files that websites use to store information on your computer and can be single-session, persistent (multi-session), first-party, or third-party. Third-party cookies are placed by someone other than the site you are on and can track your activity across multiple websites. Web beacons, also known as “web bugs” or “clear GIFs” (a GIF is a type of file that can display multiple images), are practically invisible images embedded in a web page or e-mail. Web beacons are used to monitor your behavior when visiting the website or sending an email. Data collection and storage is legal so long as it does not run counter to a posted privacy policy.

How You Can Respond to Online Tracking
You can take charge of the amount of information you make available to any site by controlling the cookies on your computer. You can remove existing cookies and prevent cookies from being placed on your computer by going to the “tools” settings in your browser. Removing and disabling cookies will limit the amount of information that is collected about you, but it may also limit the way you use sites. For example, if you disable or remove first-party cookies, sites may no longer remember your log-in name, your preferences, and items in your shopping cart. Also, removing or disabling third-party cookies will limit the targeted advertisements you see. More information about removing and disabling cookies can be found at a website developed by the Federal Trade Commission, OnGuardOnline.gov.

Understanding Privacy Policies
In today’s world, people spend so much of their lives online that they would expend much of the day if they were to read the privacy policies of every website visited. But consumers should consider reading the privacy policies of websites through which they send sensitive information, such as online shopping sites.

There are some rules that websites must follow regarding privacy policies. If a privacy policy is posted, the business must adhere to it and must notify customers if any material changes are made. The Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) requires websites that collect information from or direct their website to children under 13 to post privacy policies, provide an avenue for parental consent, and allow for data removal upon request. Additional laws are in place for particular industries and some states may have additional requirements for websites that interact with their residents. Generally, a privacy policy link will be located on a website’s homepage at or near the bottom of the page. Privacy policies tend to be written in plain English and can range from a single webpage with few sections to multiple webpages with numerous sections. Privacy policies commonly include the following information:

  • Scope and Consent: A disclaimer to the consumer that he/she is consenting to the privacy notice by using the site.
  • What personal information is collected: Collected information can be general or personally identifiable information (PII) and may be collected directly from the user or from third-parties. Types of information that are generally collected include names, addresses, telephone numbers, email addresses, IP addresses, browsing behavior, browser and device characteristics and referring URLs.
  • How the information is used: Collected information is generally used to fulfill orders and users’ requests, process returns, conduct research and analysis, customize website/shopping preferences, and communicate with users.
  • Who the information is shared with: Websites will typically share information with service providers to deliver services like processing orders or credit card payments. Information is often shared with third-parties, who may or may not be under the company’s control, for promotional and advertising purposes. Additionally, if a company is sold any stored information will likely be transferred to the new owner.
  • How the information is secured and stored: Websites may describe the type of measures taken to protect consumer information during transit—like Transport Layer Security (TLS) encryption. If information is stored, details about the physical security of computer systems’ housing facilities may also be available. The website may include information about the length of time that data is stored and whether it is destroyed securely.

About interest-based ads: Interest-based advertisements, also known as targeted ads, are third-party advertisements displayed based on a user’s collected information. A privacy policy may include information about whether information is shared between the host site and the third-party advertising company. Opting out of interest-based ads may be possible if the website adheres to advertising self-regulatory principles developed by the Digital Advertising Alliance or the Network Advertising Initiative.

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