Privacy, and the alleged threats to it, has been in the spotlight lately more than ever. 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 and Microsoft created a storm of protest when it was revealed 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 Brotherism" aspects of privacy stories such as these often are played up, which feeds people's paranoia. Survey after survey has shown how frightened people are of potential intrusions upon their finances, health information and personal habits.
FOR CAUTIOUS TYPES
In fairness, there is cause for some concern. Every year, for instance, individuals have their Social Security numbers stolen and credit ratings ruined. But the remote possibility of identity theft and other severe privacy assaults shouldn't keep you from exchanging e-mail, checking out Web sites, buying and selling on-line, and otherwise using information technology to make your work and personal 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 your e-mail reveals sensitive information, you should consider encrypting the message with a program such as PGP Personal Privacy (www.mcafee.com).
To cloak your identity completely, you can use an anonymous remailer service such as that offered by Anonymizer.com (www.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 (www.hotmail.com) 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 (www.deja.com) let others search for your messages months and even years later. To prevent your prose from achieving virtual immortality, you can direct newsgroup programs such 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. On the Web, "cookies" have gotten a bad name, largely undeservedly, and not for promoting cavities. Cookies are small files that Web sites create on your hard disk to track such things as your login 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 to better target banner ads to you.
Some people are concerned that cookies can be used to compile a marketing profile of you, which can be shared with others and add to the unsolicited e-mail ads, or spam, you receive. 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 (www.kbur ra.com) give you greater control over accepting or rejecting cookies.
Hiding your surfing tracks involves more than just dealing with cookies. Programs such as TweakIE (www.wizsys.com) and NSClean (www.nsclean.com) go well beyond Internet Explorer and Netscape Navigator's clearing of cache and history files.
• Shopping. Giving out credit card information on-line is the privacy issue that makes people the most nervous. In actuality, shopping on-line is as safe as buying with a credit card over the telephone. 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 an impossibility. Giving up some privacy is the price you pay for easy access, free content and personalization, which is a pretty good trade-off.
If you'd like more tips on protecting your privacy, check out CNET's Privacy and Security Topic Center at home.cnet.com/category/0,10000,0-3806,00.html.
Reid Goldsborough is a syndicated columnist and author of the book Straight Talk About the Information Superhighway. He can be reached at email@example.com or http://members.home.net/reidgold.