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What data are private companies collecting about you?

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The Center for Identity at The University of Texas at Austin says it's time consumers were more aware of what information they're giving away. (CBS Austin)

AUSTIN, Texas (KEYE) - Everyday consumers give private companies free access to their personal information like credit card numbers, social security numbers and locations. We've all checked a box that says "click to agree" without reading the terms and conditions and privacy policies we're agreeing to. The Center for Identity at The University of Texas at Austin says it's time consumers were more aware of what information they're giving away.

"I don't think anybody reads them. I've never read them," says consumer Davis Rubin. Like many people, Rubin uses websites and signs up for services without giving their policies a second look.

"Who has time to read ten pages worth of agreements for one app?" Rubin asks.

The policies outline what information consumers are giving up - sometimes allowing companies to use, share or sell data about you.

"If you don't hear any horror stories of what people are signing up for you don't really think about it," he says.

Researchers found the typical privacy policy is about 2,500 words and takes 10 minutes to read. The average person comes across about 1,500 of these every year. Reading them all would take 10 straight days.

"You should understand what you are consenting to," says Suzanne Barber, director of the Center for Identity at the University of Texas at Austin. To help consumers quickly break down what's in the policies they aren't reading, the center created Privacy Check.

"It'll 'read' the privacy policy for you and tell you what's in it. What are you actually agreeing to?" explains Barber.

In less than two seconds, the browser plug-in scans the policy for 10 key privacy elements:

  • How does the site handle your email address?
  • How does the site handle your credit card number and home address?
  • How does the site handle your social security number?
  • Does the site use or share your personally identifiable information for marketing purposes?
  • Does the site track or share your location?
  • Does the site collect personally identifiable information from children under 13?
  • Does the site share your information with law enforcement?
  • Does the site notify you or allow you to opt out when their privacy policy changes?
  • Does the site allow you to edit or delete your information from its records?
  • Does the site collect or share aggregated data related to your identity or behavior?

In order to develop the technology, lawyers, computer scientists and public policy experts analyzed 1,000 privacy policies and then created an algorithm that could quickly decipher them.

Barber says creating more awareness about what's in certain policies can lead to consumer change.

"Would it affect your buying patterns if you knew that one organization did a better job of protecting and respecting your data than another?" she asks.

KEYE showed the plug-in to Rubin and he ran it on his most frequently used sites. He quickly learned more about the sites he's been using and how some were using his location without him realizing it.

One of those sites is Facebook, so we reached out for a response. Facebook does give third parties your age, gender and location but says they don't release information that's personally identifiable or would tell someone exactly who you are. However, some personal data they do give to vendors or service providers. Facebook says those organizations are held to strict confidentiality agreements.

These policies aren't limited to search engines and social media. They're all around - whether you're picking up a prescription, setting your DVR, signing up for a workout class or buying movie tickets online.

"I think it's very helpful. I [ran Privacy Check on] three different websites in about three minutes whereas if I was actually reading the policies it would have probably taken three hours," he says.

"I think that there's just this inherent value of understanding what information you are giving up and what they may be doing with it and that in fact some of those uses can cause harm," says Barber.

Want to know what information you're giving to companies you do business with daily? Install Privacy Check on Google Chrome here.