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Privacy Series - The Right and the Expectation of Privacy on the Internet

Bryan Waters

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Do you have a right to online privacy? Do you actually have online privacy? Most people who use the Internet have no idea of how little privacy they actually have. The searches you perform are not private. These are saved by the major search engines. The sites you visit are not private. Your visits are recorded in the site's log files. The ad companies use cookies to track your interests by keeping records of your surfing habits. No privacy there. So do you actually have privacy on the Internet? If you are like most people, the statements I just made will scare you or make you angry.

What may not be completely obvious is that while you certainly have the right to privacy, this right is not as encompassing as you may have thought. Let me put it another way. You have the right to privacy. . . except when you sacrifice or forfeit that privacy by some action.

Let me illustrate this statement with some examples.

When you are driving on the public roads your privacy is curtailed by the greater needs of the public. You can be seen by anyone while you are in public and it is unreasonable to expect otherwise. Where this starts to become uncomfortable is when technology is used to make the apparent invasion of your privacy even more painful, such as when public cameras are used to keep track of individuals using profiling techniques to gain advanced knowledge of criminal acts. Have you read the book or seen the movie “The Minority Report?"

When you enter a business, your rights are secondary to the rights of the business owner. This is why they have a right to use security video to protect their interests. Only recently have states passed laws restricting the use of security cameras in sensitive locations such as public restrooms and dressing rooms. Note the use of that word again. . . public.

So here is a statement that may or may not be obvious but is true all the same. The Internet is a public place. It is true that the Internet is not owned by government entities but for all intents and purposes the websites, computers, network cabling, fiberoptic lines, wireless radio signals are all publicly accessible in the same manner as the local shopping mall or department store.

So now that we realize we don't have any expectation of privacy when we are in public either in the “real world" or on the Internet, what can we do to protect ourselves.

In general, you can protect yourself by taking the same steps you would in real life. Here are a few:
  • Don't go to seedy web sites. The same quality of individuals will be found in both places. They are predators and you. . . you decided to be their victim by going into their world. You don't go into dark allies in the middle of the night don't do it on the Internet.
  • Be protective of your personal information. Someone comes up to you on the street and says give me your name and address, do you do it? Don't do it on the Internet either. It's a matter of trust. Do not give your information to websites you don't trust.
  • Be careful of wolves in sheep's clothing. On the Internet this takes the form of phishing sites and emails that pretend to represent businesses you know and trust. Don't respond to emails asking for sensitive information. If you are unsure, do not click on links in the email, but rather go to the companies site and find a phone number. Call them yourself to make sure but DO NOT click on links in the email.

This article is part of a series on online privacy issues including ways of protecting yourself and articles on where and how your information is kept and used. Stay tuned for more detailed articles on the the subject of privacy both on the Internet and off.

Bryan Waters has been developing software for over two decades and has written numerous technical articles on all aspects of the software industry as well as several books that are currently available on covering topics such as Windows software development, PHP and web services. He currently blogs his opinions and thoughts on technology at .


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