About Paranoid Paul

What is this anyway?

The idea for this website came to me in February of 2010 while watching a documentary about Google. Seeing a picture of just one of their data centres, a huge room with thousands of servers, I wondered how many of those machines had my own data on them. I then thought about the multitude of accounts I've created on various websites over the years. I realized that, as the internet continues to grow, it will become more and more difficult to keep track of how my personal information is being used, or what terms I've automatically agreed to when I use or even just visit a website.

...the same rights that people have offline must also be protected online, in particular the right to privacy.
UN General Assembly, December 2013

For instance, how often does a website's Privacy Policy change? If you sign up for a website one day, and the next day they decide to add a new term or condition, you may not even notice it. Is that fair? Is there any way you can keep track of this?

There may be a last-modified date posted, but even if you monitored it regularly, you wouldn't know what part of the document had changed. You could decide to save a copy and compare it to the current version every once in a while, but there's no way you're going to start doing that for every website you use.

Neither of these seemed like realistic options. So, being a software developer, I created a prototype to monitor a single privacy policy. I noticed that it actually changed fairly frequently, and the shocking thing was that once in a while, the last-modified date wasn't even updated! Even the most meticulous user, regularly checking a last-modified date, wouldn't be aware of such a change.

This really bothered me. If you signed a paper contract, you'd also have to sign off on any changes made after the fact. But online, documents you "signed" can be modified hundreds of times without your knowledge, and you are still bound by the latest version. You wouldn't like it if your employment contract, mortgage, or insurance policy behaved this way. And as we share more and more personal information, the details of our online contracts are increasingly important to our privacy, our reputations, and even our safety.

I'm paranoid so you don't have to be

As I added more websites and improved my code, I realized that I had created a good system for keeping track of these documents. And I felt even more motivated to continue when I saw that silent updates were often being made without a change to that last-modified date. It's a more common phenomenon than you'd think.

Just like most internet users, I didn't always read those legal documents. But my comparison tool made it easy to see what changes were being made: new text in green, removed text in red. I began to find the content of these documents more interesting as I saw how they changed. And I figured that I'm probably not the only person who cares about this sort of thing, so I wanted to make it available for others to see and use.

Currently I am tracking 116 sites with a total of 469 documents. The history of their changes (from the date I started capturing them) is available for free on this website. I can notify you by email when there are modifications to any of the documents you've selected (your "Watch List") and I'll show you exactly what changed. I personally review each update before sending out a notification, so you won't be alerted to some unimportant tweak (like a format update or typo).

To get started, try searching for one of your favorite websites on the Privacy Watch page. When you click on the document's name, you can view its history and use my compare tool to see exactly how it has changed. If a website you'd like to track isn't there, let me know. Since I released this website fairly recently, I ask you to be patient while I work on expanding my inventory. I really appreciate your feedback!

I hope that this site will be a helpful tool as you continue to be vigilant and informed about the websites you frequent.

Staying paranoid so you don't have to be,

Paranoid Paul

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