How Private is the Internet?
Each year thousands of consumers take their first ride on the Information Super Highway, cruising the Internet in search of advice, information or entertainment.
One major appeal of the Internet is that it allows you access to all kinds of information without leaving your home. This newest form of communication and information is being hailed as the key to the future by many. But while the Internet does allow you the opportunity to gather information, it also offers others an opportunity to gather information about you.
Electronic mail, or e-mail, is the first experience many people have with the Internet. It is an easy, fast way of communicating. Most on-line service providers and Internet access companies include e-mail capabilities so you will probably find that more and more of your friends, co-workers and business acquaintances can be reached in this fashion.
But there is a major difference between e-mail and the old fashioned kind of mail: privacy. Think of e-mail as a postcard rather than a sealed letter. There are many points along the electronic path your e-mail takes at which it can be intercepted, either intentionally or unintentionally. So while e-mail is a great way to stay in touch, it might not be a great way to send confidential information.
Surfing on the Internet
When you sign up with an Internet access company you receive a computer program that allows you to link your computer to the Internet. You choose or are given a screen name, which may or may not be your real name and a password. Then, using your modem, you dial into the company's computer and it links you to the Internet.
Many people mistakenly think that once they sign on and begin searching for information (surfing, in Internet vernacular) using their screen name, everything they do is private. But there are a number of ways in which your Internet business is not private.
You might not realize that the Web sites you visit are also recording information about you. Without your consent they can gather your screen-name and other information about your computer, your Internet service provider and more.
In addition, some web sites ask you for information. If you provide it, often by signing a "guest book," it can be added to a database for future use by that company or to be sold to other companies.
Your on-line company can also gather information about you. They can keep track of your e-mail address and where you go when you surf the Web. Company policies on use and sale of that information vary.
Much of the information that is collected about you might never be used. In fact, many companies claim they use the information only to improve their web sites. But the information can also be used to send you unsolicited e-mail, or, ultimately, it can be sold to companies that use it to create databases of personal information for marketing or other reasons.
What You Can Do
You don't need to disconnect your computer from the Internet in order to protect your privacy. But there are a few things you can do to make your transactions more secure and your explorations more private.
- If you want to protect your anonymity when you visit a web site, first stop by "The Anonymizer" at the Center for Democracy and Technology's web site. It will assign you an anonymous identity that is revealed in place of your real identity when you visit other sites. While you're there, check out CDT's privacy demonstration. It shows you what a web site can learn about you when you visit it.
- Never give personal information -- such as your social security number, credit card number, bank account numbers or address -- to unknown companies or e-mail pals. Remember that you don't know who is really at the other end. If you're going to do business on the Internet, stick with companies you know. Many major companies and on-line service providers like America On-line, Prodigy and CompuServe offer safer means of doing business, such as encryption for your credit card number, that secure the transaction.
- Watch what your children are doing. The Internet is a wonderful learning and research tool, but children are also susceptible marketing targets. Many companies that market to children are targeting youngsters on the Internet. Make sure your children know they shouldn't give out personal information about themselves or other family members. Several software packages now allow you to control your children's Internet access.
- Ask your Internet access provider what kind of information they collect about you, how they use it and whether they sell it.
- Ask your Internet access provider if they can screen junk e-mail. Some of the major on-line services offer the option of screening out unsolicited e-mail that is sent en masse to their customers. While they can't keep them all out, they can cut down on the amount you receive.
Internet Security Tips
Every time you use the Internet, a record is created somewhere in cyberspace. You cannot control the type of information that is collected, but you should be aware that it is happening.
Look for information about security on Web sites. A site should tell you how your financial account numbers and other personal information are safeguarded during transmission, and whether that information is protected afterward if it is stored. Usually the information should be encrypted (scrambled in a private code) so no one else can read it. The site should also tell you what precautions it takes to prevent outsiders from "hacking" into its customer databases or employees from abusing the information.
Use anti-virus software on your computer, and update it regularly. Don't open attachments to e-mails from strangers. Never forward any e-mail warning about a new virus. It may be a hoax and could be used to spread a virus.
Use harder-to-guess passwords. Use both letters and numbers. Avoid common words; some hackers use programs that can try every word in the dictionary. Don't use your personal information, your login name or adjacent keys on the keyboard as passwords, and don't share your passwords online or over the phone.
Take extra security precautions when you have broadband Internet access. When you're connected to the Internet through broadband service, you are more vulnerable to "hackers" why may try to get financial and other personal information that is stored on your computer. Use firewall software or hardware to prevent unauthorized access to your computer.