Ways to protect your privacy

By Matt Jones, 16, L.A.C.E.S.
Print This Post

You always hear about those crazy people, paranoid about the country being overthrown by computers. Could my life be taken away just because some web site decides to give me a "cookie?"* Sounds a little nutty, doesn’t it?

I thought it sounded nutty too, so I attended an American Civil Liberties Union workshop on privacy rights. By the time the workshop was over, I realized our rights to a private society are being taken away right from under our noses. It doesn’t seem like a big deal now, but it could become out of control. By that time it will be too late.

How did that college in New Zealand get your address? Why are you getting credit card applications all of a sudden? Who is Ed McMahon and where is your $1,000,000? Companies like these buy your address from Internet* companies just so they can send you junk mail and hopefully get you to buy something. I talked to some of my friends about privacy rights. I think they should be more alarmed, but I do not expect them to be if they haven’t heard privacy violation stories. For example, Newsweek reported in March that last summer Geocities, a website that welcomes nearly 20 million visitors a month, sold to outside marketers information solicited during its registration process. This site even has an explicit on-line assurance that this would not ever happen. The data included information such as income, education, marital status, occupation and personal interests. The Federal Trade Commission charged Geocities with "misrepresenting the purpose for which it was collecting Personal Identification information from children and adults." Geocities agreed to strengthen privacy protection while denying any wrongdoing.

My friend Jessica knew exactly what I was talking about. She said: "I think it sucks. I think that we should have a choice about [having information sold]. I think that we should get a warning about it and if we don’t want our info. given out we can tell them right away. Then we can be sure that we won’t get those stupid e-mails."

I asked my friend Max how he felt about online businesses selling addresses and he said that he didn’t care. "I always give them fake addresses anyway. It all boils down to the fact that they ask you for the info., they don’t tell you to give it to them." Max did feel, however, that if his real information was being sold it would be a problem with him. "I don’t know who he’s selling to or what information he’s selling. He could literally hurt me if he gave the wrong info. to the wrong people."

Web sites can hold more information about you than white pages

There are Web sites where you can find almost anyone in the United States, including their phone numbers, addresses, maps to their homes, names of family members, vehicle ownership records, civil judgments, places of work and more. I searched through Infospace.com, a people search engine, to see if my information was listed in their black book. To my surprise, I found my name, my address, phone number, previous phone numbers and several of my e-mail addresses past and present. I took my information off this list, but it is just one of the many "people finders" out there. The white pages of a phone book do pretty much the same thing with their residential listings. The difference between the white pages and the Internet is that almost everyone already knows about the white pages and getting your number out of them is a snap. On the Internet there are several different "white pages" and if you want out, you have to find them all.

In September 1998 Infospace.com logged more than 3.5 million visitors. I have no idea how long my information had been up there, but I am certain that hundreds of people probably at least glanced at it and that’s a scary thought. The people looking at these records could range from the police to your own grandmother. Police in Canada arrested a Cantor who pled guilty to possessing child pornography from the Internet. But what if someone else was using the account? How would you prove yourself innocent? On the Internet, to impersonate you all I need to know is your password.

Did you know that just by accessing certain web sites you could be tracked? I was online one day for two hours just doing research for this article and 10 cookies were downloaded onto my computer without my notification or consent. Along with that, the temp files* on my computer were bombarded with 422 files which included hidden cookies, Web site links and advertisements. The cookie can come in many different forms. It can allow for faster Web site loading next time you visit that site, save your personalized settings on that site, send you an advertisement for the site, or allow the webmaster to track your every move across the net. The last kind of cookie sends Web site addresses that you have visited to the Web site database that gave you the cookie. This allows for junk e-mail or spam* to freely enter your online mailbox.

Scary new technologies can ID you

The Internet isn’t the only new way of tracking people. A new generation of security and identification devices could soon replace your keys and credit cards. These devices are not really invasive of one’s rights, but it still scares me to think that I could be picked out of a crowd just by the heat emitted from my face.

Iris scans* check for a complex combination of the parts of the eye to identify different people. Facial thermography* includes an infrared camera that captures a picture of a person’s face and catalogues the different temperatures emerging from underlying blood vessels. Finger scans keep digital records of fingerprints and matches them to a person seeking entry. These forms of identification are becoming popular for security, especially at high-security businesses like banks. However, they could become more common at ordinary places of work.

To get a California ID or a California driver’s license, the Department of Motor Vehicles makes you get a finger scan.* A popular Levi’s store in San Francisco scans your fingerprints and keeps track of all your measurements. Next time you go in, they know exactly what size jeans you wear. This futuristic store is wired with all kinds of media including speakers blasting MP3 formatted music and spy cams in which store visitors can spy on the people in Union Square across the street.

An August 1999 Wired.com article reported that this Levi’s store asks for your approval to videotape and track you every step of the way. Consumers are asked to read the store’s privacy policy, which states that customers can have their information deleted at anytime and no data is sold or shared with third parties, on a computer screen before the store asks for finger scans or personal data. According to the article, the policy takes forever to come up, so most customers just click "I Agree" without even reading it. This policy is not required for visitors who just want to browse in the store, but you will be filmed by cameras to monitor your buying habits no matter what your intent.

Sam Davies, Director General of the non-profit group Privacy International, stated in the article that "The problem is not what this information does to us now; it’s more about what the ceremonious handing over of fingerprints and information will do to our children. Anonymity will be a thing of the past. The loss of anonymity will lead to the germination of an authoritarian state." In English this means that in giving up our rights to privacy, we will in turn allow our country to be controlled by one source, abolishing our rights to have a say in what happens to us. Little things like having to give personal information about yourself to buy pants will lead to our privacy rights being trampled over. By that time, letting the government install cameras in your home so they can better "protect" you won’t sound like such a bad idea. We have to put an end to this before it gets to that level.

Giving up our anonymity might not seem like a big deal. In some ways it makes life a little easier. The bottom line is that giving up our right to privacy leads to a world that was painted by the author George Orwell in his classic 1984. It told of a world where privacy does not exist and even thinking the wrong thoughts was a crime. Considering what scanning your fingers now can lead to, do you really need that perfect pair of Levi’s?"

Cache file: A file that is downloaded onto your hard drive so that when you visit the site again, information can load faster. A cookie would be an example of a cache file.

Cookie: A temporary Internet file that is downloaded on to the hard drive of your computer to either track your movements along the Internet, save personal information such as a username so that you can access the web site faster, or send unwanted advertisements.

Facial thermography: A method of identification by measuring the amount of heat radiating from one’s face.

Finger scan: A method of identification by reading fingerprint patterns. A digital fingerprint.

Internet: The information superhighway. A network of information linked by a "web" of computers.

Iris scan: A method of identification by reading the different patterns on the eye’s iris.

Spam: Unwanted and unsolicited e-mail from various businesses, companies or groups. A cheap way of advertising.

Temp file: The folder on your computer where cache files are stored.

Webmaster: The person(s) who updates, monitors and constructs a Web site.