Cloud or Goldfish Bowl?

Since becoming widely available for home use in the middle 1990s, the mark left by the internet on life as we know it has become increasingly indelible. It has become a method by which people apply for jobs, communicate with others, obtain news about current events, look up dictionary definitions and encyclopedia articles and even read classic literary works such as Les Misérables, The Prophet or Romeo and Juliet.

However, policies regarding internet privacy are largely underdeveloped on account of the fact that regulating the internet is quite complicated. In the interest of upholding the provision of free speech outlined in the First Amendment of the Constitution, the Supreme Court has shied away from regulating the digital world, but the United States Federal Government has taken an active interest in internet legislation, particularly to counteract child pornography and other sexual offenses, gambling, and filesharing, which is regarded as piracy within certain circles.

There are a number of ways that an internet user inadvertently reveals personal information to the outside world. Upon signing up for internet service, a client is provided with a unique internet protocol (IP) address, consisting of four sets of numbers separated by dots, i.e. 123.45.67.890, which may or may not be a permanent assignment. Although a web user’s IP address does not disclose information in and of itself, because internet service providers, also known as ISPs keep records of IP addresses; privacy policies of different ISPs vary and many ISPs do not discuss their data-retention policies, this can pose a problem when it comes to protecting an internet user’s privacy. The use of electronic mail, or email can also compromise privacy, particularly if an email system is owned by an employer and emails are sent from a business location. Moreover, if an ISP has reason to suspect that an email user seeks to harm the system or other users, the provider may invoke its right to view private emails, although random viewing thereof without probable cause and/or consent from the subscriber is strictly prohibited. Then again, in the event of a court order or a subpoena, a provider is in fact required to disclose basic subscriber information, but further information requires the procurement of a search warrant, a legal precedent being set by the decision in the case of the United States versus Steven Warshak et al, in which Warshak, the owner of Berkeley Premium Nutraceuticals, Inc., which marketed Enzyte, an herbal nutritional supplement that allegedly promoted natural male enhancement. Although Warshak’s business practices were indeed questionable – false information in advertisements were de rigeur – Warshak contended that the government violated his Fourth Amendment rights when they coerced his ISP to produce the contents of his emails without a warrant.

There are many other methods and opportunities for third parties to get a glimpse at your personal information. Email discussion lists often display email addresses in plain sight, sometimes on the e-mails sent and often through the group’s web page. Although viewing the list is only possible with a subscription and a password, other users have uninhibited access to any given subscriber’s email address and other information posted within the web page. Browsing the internet makes it possible for an internet user’s IP address and other personal information to be relayed to certain webmasters. Search engines have the capability to record your IP address and track your searches right down to the terms used within. Virtually all instant messaging services have the inherent ability to automatically archive all conversations. Adding to this danger, people who converse with others through instant messaging are not required to disclose whether or not they are recording or archiving the conversations. Just like workplace email, IM chats can also be monitored by employers if they occur under the roof of a business establishment. Although social networking sites like Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter have enabled users to connect with others via the cloud, these sites are also popular with corporations on the lookout for a market advantage, stalkers, identity thieves, grifters and debt collectors because all of the above are hungry for information, as it is the lifeblood of their respective endeavors.

Whenever somebody visits a series of web pages, data packets known as “cookies” are deposited onto a user’s hard drive. These cookies may include such facts as as login or registration identification, user preferences and data germane to online transactions. Whereas legitimate websites use cookies to make offers to users to regular customers and track results of advertising campaigns, third parties also use cookies to share internet users’ personal information with advertising clearinghouses that in turn relay the information to other marketers, which explains why our inboxes can sometimes become jam-packed to the gills with junk email.

Despite the numerous ways that a person’s privacy can be compromised while surfing the net, steps can be taken to prevent this. One should not freely disclose such information as addresses, telephone numbers and especially social security numbers, as the latter is all any would-be identity thief would need to do what they do best. In fact, it is best to give a marketer only the information that is absolutely necessary to complete a transaction, and while doing so, make sure that all required online forms are secure. If one receives a request for personal information, there is nothing wrong with asking why this information is important, and it is also advisable to request that it not be shared with any third party. Young children should also be cautioned that sharing information with strangers online is just as dangerous as talking to strangers in real life.

It is a particularly good idea for people to read the privacy policy of any web sites they use, and by the same token, if any website does not have a clearly stated privacy policy, steer well clear. Reject unnecessary cookies, and make good use of anonymizers while browsing. In any event, after a session on the cloud, clearing the browser’s history is most advisable, as is keeping the file- and printer-sharing options on one’s home computer turned off during the session. Moreover, using firewalls is a particularly safe idea, and solid up-to-date virus protection software is an absolute must.

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