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Getting a handle on your privacy online begins with knowing how online companies gather your private information, what they do with it and how to take some control over your privacy.

But being proactive with your online privacy is better still – decide in the beginning which services to use, expect privacy policies to change and delete old accounts.

It’s a good idea to think critically about the online services you sign up for. The availability of high-tech services is constant, and you might have a feeling that you’re at a disadvantage if you don’t network as much as another person.

But consider the costs and the privacy implications. Do you really need that new social networking service? How much information does it require? What will happen if you don’t sign up?

And be aware of changes in the services you use. Every change in a company’s privacy policy is announced by a change in the end user license agreement, though the changes might be obscured as a “click through” button. Don’t just click and accept the new changes. Read and think.

For instance, a few weeks ago Google announced a new service linked to their widely used Gmail. Anyone logging into their Gmail account was greeted by a screen announcing the new service – called Google Buzz – with a button to click to enable it.

What Google Buzz did was automatically link everyone, by default, that you most frequently e-mail and chat with into a social network accessible by all those people. That was an unpleasant surprise to many and a black eye to Google, as it generated a complaint to the Federal Trade Commission.

The backlash was serious enough for Google to back down in a few days from some default Buzz settings and offer users more choices in information sharing.

It’s also  a good idea is to delete any online accounts and services you don’t use. That will help minimize your online privacy footprint. But be aware that some online companies will keep your deleted account information for some time after, according to the EULA. Your information might be out there for months or years after you close an online account.

Next week: What organizations are working for your online privacy?

Mac Q-and-A: How Apple’s Boot Camp works, markratledge.com/

mac-q-and-a.

Montana InBusinessMonthly: Facebook Settings you need to know about, mtinbusiness.com.

Mark Ratledge is an information technology consultant. His Web site is markratledge.com.

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