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What to look for in a privacy policy

How is your information used?
How is your information used? © Tashatuvango/Shutterstock.com

Once you know what information a company has, check the privacy notice to find out what the company will do with it. Unfortunately, the explanation often can be vague and seem innocuous, says David Jacobs, the consumer protection counsel for the Electronic Privacy Information Center.

"Almost every company states that it will use personal information to improve its products and services," he says.

For instance, Facebook faced stiff opposition two years ago when it tried to loosen its privacy controls and give mobile app developers the ability to see a Facebook user's home address or cellphone number. The company faced more criticism this year when it wanted to sell Instagram users' photos to advertisers.

"If you were a consumer who objected to one of those developments," says Jacobs, "it would have been very difficult to read the privacy policy and know exactly what was coming."

In those instances, keep an eye out for changes in privacy policies. Google's privacy policy has undergone a dozen revisions since its first edition in 1999. Policies usually can change at any time to authorize practices that you didn't originally OK, says Jacobs. Look for the phrases "how we use" or "conditions of use" when looking at changes or when first signing an agreement so you know what a company plans on doing with your information.

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