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Are you breaking the law and don’t even know it? What you need to know about protecting your customers’ privacy

Identity theft, computer security, and privacy concerns are coming together like three twisters ready to wreak havoc on everything in their path. And even though the skies around you are clear at the moment, your business may be in danger of being blown away.

What information is on your computers?

The more sophisticated the communication devices we carry around in our pockets – or that rarely leave our hands – the more complicated the issues become. We waffle between being thrilled that we can have our friends pinpoint our whereabouts with cool GPS apps and being indignant that a retailer like Sears would track our every action online. What distinguishes a fun app from an invasion of privacy? And what if the tracking intent were more malicious?

The problem for small business owners is that you have to be very careful about what type of information you gather and store. Even if all you do is something as old-tech as accepting payments by credit card, you’re putting yourself in the path of the storm.

A free guide to protecting personal information.

The Federal Trade Commission’s website can help you get a grip on the issues you might face as a small business (see link below.) Look especially for the brochure Protecting Personal Information: A Guide for Business. It’s a free, 15-page pdf file that provides basic instructions on handling your customers’ and employees’ personal information.

The brochure outlines five key principles and provides detailed checklists for each:

1. Take stock: Know what personal information you have on your computers.

2. Scale down: Keep only what you need for your business.

3. Lock it: Protect the information that you keep.

4. Pitch it: Properly dispose of what you no longer need.

5. Plan ahead: Create a plan to respond to security incidents.

You’ll find the brochure at http://business.ftc.gov. If you’re inclined to dig deeper into the issue, or your business demands it, see also the FTCs report issued in March 2012, Protecting Consumer Privacy in an Era of Rapid Change: Recommendations for Businesses and Policymakers.

What information sources do you rely on to know what the law requires of your business?

Dave Smith has been a freelance writer for 30 years on topics ranging from national defense policy to national baking contests. He has written for and about many of the world’s leading companies on assignments from Andorra to Zambia. His reporting has been read in corporate boardrooms, the State Department, Pentagon and White House.

©2012 All rights reserved.

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