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On-Line Privacy Protection
By Paul Hook -- June 27, 2001
The subject of on-line privacy protection is another much discussed but often misunderstood problem on the Internet.   How can it be misunderstood you might ask?  Apples and oranges. 

When the issue comes up for discussion some are talking about the transfer of information harvested from data mining for marketing purposes, while others talk about the intrusion into the personal lives of Internet users for more nefarious reasons.

Paul Hook

For example, there is a law that was passed by the Federal Government that went into effect in April of 2000 called the Children’s On-line Privacy Protection Act (COPPA). This law is directed at site operators and makes it illegal to collect information from children under the age of 13 without parental consent.

When you look at what child safety advocates have to say this law was passed to protect children from having their personal information disseminated anywhere on the Internet in order to protect them from those who would use this information to track down and lure these kids into situations where they can accomplish their agendas of pedophilia or other sick goals.

Yet, in other circles, this law was passed to keep site owners from collecting, through these unaware adolescents, personal information about their parents that could be used for marketing purposes or other financial/marketing oriented schemes.

So what’s the big deal? We aren’t making this a big deal; COPPA actually addresses both of these issues. We are simply showing that when addressing the subject of on-line privacy protection, we must be astute and understand that like Internet Safety itself, a comprehensive understanding of the issues must be developed through the collection of information contained in narrowly definitive discussions. Public interest groups each have their own areas of specialty and if we take one explanation of a problem it may be a limited explanation of a multi-faceted problem.

On-line Privacy is not limited to one or two subject parameters, but is a broad subject covering several areas in which we must be prepared to establish informed policies for Internet use in our homes that will protect us from any and all types of privacy invasion.

At the Core of the Issues

Your on-line privacy is actually a central concern, nested at the core of the issues of Internet Safety. If we are uninformed of the fundamentals of on-line privacy we are also vulnerable to the exploits of those who use the Internet to seek their own private gain.

In order to understand this more fully, let’s first look at this idea of exploitation for personal gain. When we hear the term personal gain most of us think of financial gain, but if you have read our site article “The Truth About Chat”, you will remember that Predators seek many forms of personal gain, all at the expense of their victims. Personal gain is realized by these denizens of the net through:

Accessing personal information for financial gain.

Creating fear for a feeling of power.

Gaining trust in order to accomplish the fulfillment of their objectives.

Intimidating others by revealing knowledge of things they should not know about us.

Data mining to sell marketing information.

Acquiring knowledge of personal information for more direct, off-line contacts.

There are more that could be added to this list but you should get the idea here. Some are after material gain, while others are after sick psychological, even criminal fulfillment. This, to them, is gain, but to you as a victim is loss, sometimes more of a loss than we care to mention.

We state again that this is a central concern, nested at the core of the issues because if your privacy is guarded properly, there is far less of an opportunity for you to become a victim.

Where is Privacy Compromised?

Your privacy can be compromised in a number of ways, including the most innocent of activities that you might participate in on-line and it behooves everyone who uses the Internet to realize how open the lines of communication are in this cyber environment.

For example did you know that anything you type into your computer just may become viewable to the public if you have an internet connection? I mean anything! For example,

E-mail

You might send e-mail to someone with some personal information on it. Right off the bat, please understand that an e-mail goes through several communication switches before it reaches it’s destination and can be read by just about anyone connected to those switches. Next, it may be stored in an archive, or copied and sent to someone else or forwarded. The more that it goes around the more people have access to it. Although being sent innocently, the chances of your private information being made public grow exponentially.

Then there are spiders (software programs) that travel all over the Internet looking for information and indexing it all. Some of these spiders belong to search engines that we all have access to, some belong to universities and private companies, but regardless of who they belong to there is a very good chance that your personal communications will eventually be found, indexed, and stored in the massive databases that these computer systems maintain.

Just for a little shocker go to most any search engine and search the term “I smoke Marijuana”, and look at some of the forum entries and letters that are now public because they have been indexed by the Search Engine spider.

Worms

A Worm is another type of computer program that is usually considered in the class with viruses because they are spread by malicious, virus type emails. Worms can act very much like spiders in that they can crawl through your entire computer looking for information and then send it back to the originator of worm. These worms can find credit card information, banking information or whatever other personal information they are programmed to look for.

You may feel safe because you don’t store any personal information in your computer, but don’t be fooled. If you have ever typed anything personal into your computer, chances are it can still be found, even if you have deleted it!

Are you getting the picture yet? You may be sitting at home or in your office in a place that seems private, and transmitting private communications, of just keeping private data in file on your computer that you never intend to be used in your Internet communications, and yet be completely exposed like you’ve had a private phone conversation while standing in Grand Central Station, or posted your credit card numbers on a bulletin board for everyone to see.

This does not mean that everyone already has access to your personal information or communications, just that they could.

There are also intentionally intrusive exposures that we are subjected to just by surfing the net. One example of this is the Ad Agents, or Spy Ware programs that exist today. These programs are planted on your hard drive by sites that you visit quite innocently, and have the capability of logging every thing that you do on line (even when you use your credit card), and reporting this stored information back to their creators.

It was recently revealed that even the Federal Government has compromised the privacy of visitors to some it’s sites, one of the situations even being that a non-government third party service provider for a Government site obtained the rights to data collected from visitors through the site’s use of cookies.

Virtually Every Venue Contains Risk

What we must realize here is that virtually every venue available to us on the Internet contains some element of risk for our privacy to be compromised. That does not mean that we cannot participate in them only that we must be aware of the risk and establish proper use procedures for safeguarding that which we do not want to share with the world.

It will pay big dividends in the long run (not in terms of what we can gain, but terms of what we can avoid losing) if we take the time the learn of what our exposure is in each and every venue we choose to utilize, and how to reduce this exposure and avoid the intrusions and loss that can occur.

Just keep in mind that every time you establish a connection, whether just to send e-mail, to go make a purchase, to post a message on a bulletin board, to chat, or anything else, you are exposed. There are no exceptions.

Setting up defenses for yourself, your family, and your computer (and all that it contains) is not that difficult, or costly, but requires some time and attention.

Copyright 2001
All Rights Reserved
Paul Hook

About the Author
Paul Hook is the owner of TheGuardianAngel.com TM  . . . The site's goal is to create an environment of safety on the Internet through promoting awareness of all of the dangers that exist on the Internet, and through its interactive database, Positive ID Profile System, which was created to give you the ability to know who you, or your kids, are talking to on the Internet. 

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