Make sure your private information stays private

Is your personal information being shared across the Web?

By Russ Kratowicz, senior editor

Orwell was a few years off in the timing of Big Brother watching over us. We do not yet have little cameras located everywhere watching everything that we do. In some sense, we still retain some semblance of privacy, but it is being eroded steadily. It started with the use of Social Security numbers. That nine-digit numerical sequence was never intended to be a personal identifier. But now, it is exactly that.

Computers represent a great technology. However, it is their ability to perform actions in the background that the user never knows about that is the root cause of the privacy issue on the Internet. If you do any amount of surfing the Internet, the sites to which you connect are probably gathering information about you in at least two ways.

Orwell was a few years off in the timing of Big Brother watching over us.

– Russ Kratowicz, senior editor

One type of personal data gathering is typified by Amazon.com. They are overt about the fact that they are collecting information about you. You need to register your existence if you want to use the site. The other type of personal data gathering is covert. Your computer is responding to queries from the other computer and your trusty electronic box is spilling its guts to the whole world. Take, for example, one of the standard features of your Internet browser.

Cookies

If you are using Netscape Navigator, be aware that it generates a file called cookies.txt. You see, some of the Web sites you visit gather and store data about you in that file that all Web sites can access. When you revisit the site, it looks for the cookies.txt file to see what it already knows about you.

Persistent Client State HTTP Cookies are what Netscape calls a general mechanism which server side connections can use to both store and retrieve information about the client side of the connection. When you are browsing, you are the client and the Web site is the server. If you want the arcane nitty-gritty, you can find Netscape's preliminary specification for cookies at http://home.netscape.com/newsref/std/cookie_spec.html.

The Electronic Privacy Information Center posted a document, The Cookies Page, at http://www.epic.org/privacy/internet/cookies/ that is a good general reference. Not all Web sites use cookies, however. Surfer Beware: Personal Privacy and the Internet is an interesting document you can find at http://www.epic.org/reports/surfer-beware.html. It is the result of an EPIC survey of the top 100 Web sites that documents the relative degree of personal privacy that each offers.

Malcolm's Guide to Persistent Cookies resources at http://www.emf.net/~mal/cookiesinfo.html is a list of links to many other sites that are concerned with the invasion of personal privacy by cookies.

You should use the file manager to search out your cookies.txt file and examine it. You may delete the cookie.txt file with impunity on a regular basis. If the Web site wants a cookie file and none exists, it simply generates a new one and names it cookies.txt.

Going to The Privacy Pages residing at http://www.2020tech.com/maildrop/privacy.html is another collection of links to privacy resources on the Web. There is actually an overwhelming amount of material in cyberspace on this privacy issue. If you are concerned, it's best you start your literature search from one of the links at that Web site.

So, what do we do now?

You can learn how to reconfigure Netscape Navigator 3.0 (and up) as well as Internet Explorer to alert you before it accepts a cookie. Follow the advice that you find in Andy's HTTP Cookie Notes found at http://www.illuminatus.com/cookie_pages/secure.html. You will, however, get a lot of warnings on some sites. The constant interruptions to an already slow-loading Web page can be annoying.

Our friends at Berkeley can tell you all about privacy-enhancing technologies for the Internet if you visit http://www.cs.berkeley.edu/~daw/privacy-compcon97-www/privacy-html.html. This is a nine-page scholarly work describing existing technologies.

A simple check of Project Open at http://www.isa.net/project-open/layout.html#intro yields an 11-page document that tells more of what the common person can do to enhance privacy when surfing.

Does your browser give out your e-mail address?

You can find out if you visit http://www.helie.com/BrowserCheck. When you first access the site, your browser gets a pass/fail grade. You will also be able to link to other sites that run your browser through various other testing regimens.

Anonymous Surfing

One Web site makes the claim that their service allows you to surf the Web without revealing any personal information. Apparently, this site inserts itself between you and the Web to act as a "firewall" of sorts, for lack of a better term. Check out http://www.anonymizer.com/ to give it a try.

Stop junk e-mail

I suppose that unsolicited commercial e-mails showing up in your mailbox is, to some extent, an invasion of your personal privacy. If you are tired of having to delete a dozen junk e-mails every morning, then visit the Campaign to Stop Junk Email at http://www.MCS.com/~jcr/junkemail.html to read one person's philosophy and suggestions about getting rid of material that clogs the arteries of the Internet.

Isn't it about time?

Speaking of time, most of us suffer from what I heard referred to as time poverty. If you want to know precisely what time it is right now, check out the U.S. Naval Observatory Master Clock Web page found at http://www.usno.navy.mil/what.html.

Parenting in the digital age

As a follow-up to the May column on First Amendment rights, please check out the Direct Marketing Association Web site found at http://www.the-dma.org/pan/intro.html for their page titled Get CyberSavvy. The Web site has information about setting online Internet rules for family usage. It's worth the effort if you are concerned about keeping whatever you consider to be indecent Web material from being seen by your children.

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