Personal Computing

Privacy threats are no cause for hysteria.

Privacy is something you must sacrifice to belong to a community. This may sound extreme, but the opposite view -- that privacy can never be sacrificed -- is causing hysteria lately, particularly where the Internet and personal computers are involved. The Clinton administration, in planning a massive program to protect government and other computer networks from cyber-terrorists, has been criticized for setting itself up as a governmental Peeping Tom. Meanwhile, computer giants Intel Corp. and Microsoft Corp. created a storm of protest when it was revealed that they had built user-identifying codes into the Pentium III microprocessor and the Windows 98 operating system, codes that could make e-commerce safer and protect against software piracy. The sensational Big Brother aspects of privacy stories such as these often are played up, which feeds paranoia. Survey after survey has shown how frightened people are of potential intrusions upon their finances, health information, and personal habits. In fairness, there is cause for some concern. Social Security numbers have been stolen and credit ratings ruined. But the remote possibility of identity theft and other severe privacy assaults shouldn't keep anyone from exchanging e-mail, checking out Web sites, buying and selling online, and otherwise using information technology to make life more productive and enjoyable. If you're the cautious type, there are steps you can take to ease any fears.

  • E-mail: Sending e-mail is like mailing a postcard -- others besides your recipient can read it. But you need access and expertise to do so, and with the millions of e-mail messages sent each day, the chance of yours being intercepted is infinitesimally small. Still, if an e-mail reveals sensitive information, consider encrypting the message with a program such as PGP Personal Privacy. To cloak your identity completely, use an "anonymous remailer" service such as that offered by Anonymizer.com. If you threaten violence or otherwise break the law, however, such services may be obligated to reveal your identity. Web-based e-mail services such as Hotmail can provide a degree of e-mail anonymity, though savvy sleuths may be able to trace where your messages originate.
  • Usenet: If you participate in Usenet discussion groups, services such as Deja.com let others search for your messages months and even years later. To prevent this, direct newsgroup programs such as Agent to include an "x-no-archive" header with your messages, or you can do this manually by typing "x-no-archive: yes" (without quotes) as the first line of each message.
  • Surfing: Cookies have gotten a bad name on the Web, largely undeservedly. Cookies are small files that Web sites create on your hard disk to track such things as your log-in or registration data, the parts of the site you looked at, and any purchases you made. Their purpose is to serve you better next time you visit or better target banner ads. Some people are concerned that cookies can used to compile a marketing profile, which can be shared with others and increase unsolicited e-mail ads. You can turn off cookies in most Web browsers, but doing so prevents you from viewing the content of some Web sites. Programs such as Cookie Pal give you greater control over accepting or rejecting cookies. Hiding your surfing tracks involves more than just dealing with cookies. Programs such as TweakIE and NSClean, go well beyond Internet Explorer's and Netscape Navigator's clearing of cache and history files.
  • Shopping: Giving out credit card information online is the privacy issue that makes people the most nervous, although shopping online is as safe as buying with a credit card over the phone. More and more Web shopping sites use secure servers that encrypt any credit card information you type in. Most Web browsers announce when you're about to load a page stored on a secure server. Also, the address of the page itself will begin with "https" instead of "http" (the extra "s" stands for "secure"). On the Internet, absolute privacy is impossible. Giving up some privacy is the price you pay for easy access, free content, and personalization, which is a pretty good trade-off. Reid Goldsborough is a syndicated columnist and author of the book Straight Talk About the Information Superhighway. He can be reached at [email protected] or http://members.home.net/reidgold.
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