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You and Your Privacy
By: Bruce Coker
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    Table of Contents:
  • You and Your Privacy
  • Policies in practice
  • Current Policies
  • Taking back control

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    You and Your Privacy

    (Page 1 of 4 )

    Whether you realize it or not, every single one of the more than 170 million web sites that make up the Internet knows something about its visitors. For the simplest sites, this might amount to little more than an IP address Ė the unique number that identifies every computer connected to the net -- stored in the serverís logs, but even this can sometimes be enough to identify and locate a specific individual. Many sites, however, actively set out to collect and store data about their guests.

    This can be for a wide variety of reasons, for example to customize the browsing experience to suit each personís preferences, or more commonly to target advertising with extraordinary precision, based on the known tastes, geographical location and purchasing habits of the individual. Further information is gathered and often retained by Internet service providers, whose obligations regarding the privacy of their customers can easily come into conflict with their legal responsibility to disclose information to the authorities.

    You are not invisible

    People find it very easy to believe that they are untraceable online; that they can be whoever they want to be, and that their actions are somehow detached from the real world and therefore without consequence. The general perception of the Internet is similar to that of an extended game.

    The reality is quite different. Although nobody is actively looking over your shoulder when you spend time online, what you do on the Internet is in fact far more traceable than the majority of your actions in your everyday life. Computers are excellent at gathering and storing data, and everybody who uses the Internet should be aware that the details of every site they visit, everything they download and everything they type into a web form is being recorded somewhere. Often it is recorded in more than one place, since just about every computer through which a typical web request passes keeps detailed records of its activities in the form of log files.

    This alone should be enough to make people think about the places they visit online and the information they hand over. Although things are changing slowly, it is still common for sites to demand an unreasonable amount of information in order to allow guests to register. This includes not just a name and address, but a date of birth, gender, phone numbers and even extended family details. This is easily enough information to commit serious acts of data fraud. Some sites, such as Amazon.com and Ryanair.com, even offer to store your credit card details for you.

    While this may seem convenient to many people, it is in fact the Internet equivalent of giving a total stranger the keys to your house for safekeeping. Even if the stranger himself can convince you that heís trustworthy, you donít know how good his security is or who might be working for him, either now or in the future.

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