Privacy Policies

By Corbin HartwickUpdated on November 23, 2017

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What is a privacy policy?

A privacy policy is a document that a website writes up to inform its users how it handles any personal information that is collected from users of the website, or which users enter into the website. There are two main elements to a privacy policy:

  • It explains how the website will protect the privacy of its users by not collecting, keeping, or sharing certain personal information.
  • It makes the user aware of what kinds of personal information will be collected or asked for from the website, whether it will be shared or not, and — if it is to be shared — with whom.

Why are privacy policies important?

Many people don't take the time to read website privacy policies, as many of them are long and filled with hard-to-understand legal terms. In fact, some people just assume that their personal information won't be shared by a website simply because it has a privacy policy. Unfortunately, as we just explained, many privacy policies are as much (or more) about what a website will do with any information that it gets from you as they are about what a website won't do with your information.

Understanding what a privacy policy does and doesn't allow a website to do with respect to your personal information helps you to make an informed decision about your privacy on the Internet. If you feel that a website's privacy policy gives it too much leeway to intrude into your personal life, you may want to consider using another website that has a stricter privacy policy. Or, you may want to use some of the strategies and tools from other articles in this course to protect your privacy yourself, instead of expecting other websites to do it for you.

Things to be aware of in a privacy policy

We realize that we just mentioned that many privacy policies are difficult to read because they are lengthy and filled with legal-speak. However, you can make them slightly easier to digest — and gauge how well they will actually protect your privacy — by asking a few key questions.

10 questions to ask while reading a privacy policy

  • What information does the website require me to provide in order to use it?
  • Does the website collect any information from me besides what is required to use it?
  • By merely using the website, am I consenting to the website being able to collect information from me?
  • What reason or reasons does the website give for collecting or requiring certain types of information from me (e.g. "deliver our services", "improve my experience", etc.)?
  • Does the website share, sell, or trade any of the information that it collects from me with anyone else?
  • If the website shares, sells, or trades my information, with whom do they do so? (Their partner services? Advertisers? The government? Law enforcement? Other groups?)
  • When does the website release my information to anyone else? (Never? When they're required to by law? When they fear that their own — or someone else's — well-being is at stake? Whenever they want?)
  • How long does the website keep any information that it collects from me? (30 days? 90 days? A year? Until I close my account or otherwise request that they get rid of it? As long as they are required to by law? Until they deem that it's no longer useful to them?)
  • Does the website actually delete any information that they collect from me (whether I request it or they do so in keeping with their privacy policy), or do they simply remove any parts of it that could personally identify me?
  • Does the website allow any other groups, besides themselves, to collect information from me while I use their website? If so, what are the privacy policies of these groups?

Skim over a privacy policy, and see how many of these questions you can find an answer to. If you don't like the answers that you find, consider taking steps to independently protect your privacy. You may even not want to use the website at all, and find a more privacy-wise alternative instead.

If you'd like an example of how to read a privacy policy by using these questions as a guideline, check out our Case Study: Facebook Privacy Policy article.

Anyway, that's a brief introduction to privacy policies!