Privacy Online, Big Brother is Watching
June 12, 2000

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Reaching Great Minds Online
June 12, 2000 Issue #48
Mike Valentine, Editor,


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Big Brother IS Watching You! Everyone is Watching You!
by Mike Banks Valentine

Did you know that you are willingly providing information
to the world with every site you visit, every product you
buy. Your mailing address, your phone number, your sexual
preferences (based on sites you may have visited), your
resumˇ are available, literally to the entire world?

Personal privacy on the web is non-existent and detailed
information on you and your family, your income, your
tax information, employment history, legal documents and
e-mail, are becoming easily accessible to anyone who wants
them. Good guy, bad guy or even your own dear mother.

It's all becoming more available to the world with each
site you visit, each product you purchase and each e-mail
you send. That's right, your e-mail is not private, and
can be accessed by any bright kid with a modem and too
much spare time on his hands.

It's widely known that e-mail is being used as evidence
in court cases to convict hackers, software moguls and
corporate executives of various wrongdoings. YouÕre an
innocent? You erased it? Doesn't matter, the receiver
and those that were sent a copy of your message may have
an edited, incriminating, misleading, archived copy.

There are answers out there to keep your e-mail more
secure, like the encryption key based "envelope" provided
by services like to protect your
identity and stop others from tracking and reading those
notes you send that you believe are private.

As you sign up for the PrivacyX service, though, read the
"Terms of Service" (membership agreement) carefully. The
TOS says "we can access your mail" So it's private from
everyone except the provider. Better to be visible to one
than many, but they don't tell you what they do with your

They offer soothing words suggesting it will be given only
to law enforcement agencies that request it and tell you
be good little boys and girls and not use the service to
spam or spread hate. They don't admit to anything other
than "providing it in aggregate to advertisers". Essentially
the language used means that they could do anything they
like with it. It's a kind of "Trust me" statement.

Then there are the sites like Lexis-Nexis "People Locator"
At this site they provide "subscribers" of their service
with "publicly available" information as well as "some non-
publicly available" information. Fortunately there is a way
to "opt-out" of their database, by sending your name,
address and phone number

Whew! Now you're outta there! But wait! At Lexis-Nexis
there's a reference to the "IRSG" or Individual Reference
Services Group, which is a business consortium that make
a living off of selling your information to anyone willing
to pay for it. In their own words, the group is made up of
"commercial services that provide data to help identify,
verify, or locate individuals".

Now you have to go to each of the members of the IRSG and
check each member privacy policy (links kindly provided) by the members.
(Although the privacy policy links for two of these
IRSG members return a "404 not found" error. Hmmmm. And
when I visited the "TransUnion" privacy policy page I got
a "HTTP/1.1 Application Restarting" message repeatedly.

Some provide opt-out options, others don't, but you can
approach each of the credit reporting agencies, locator
services and other information verification companies
through the contact information they provide and give
them a piece of your mind if you like.

Don't expect to get far with services like CDB InfoTech
(recently become ChoicePoint) as when you reach their
privacy policy page link you'll find that they . . .
"do not allow individuals to "opt-out" of our databases."
because CDB "only serves legitimate businesses and
government agencies that have an appropriate need for
the information we report." Hmmmm. I guess it's up to
them what's legitimate and who's appropriate.

Now all of the foregoing was interesting, but there is
one particular issue that relates specifically to the
web and your surfing, buying and e-mailing habits. You
should know by now that every site you visit can place
a "cookie" on your hardrive which will record a few
crumbs of information about you.

This is harmless enough at first glance when all they
seem to care about is the time, date, length of stay and
pages you visited at their site. But when you know that
advertisers that serve ads from the sites you visit can
also track your visit, link it to other stored data about
you gathered at other sites and finally to any other
information they have stored about you, how do you feel?

This means that the harmless little "session number" or
"state data" gathered about you from every site you've
ever visited, every product you've ever purchased online
and every banner you've ever clicked on is stored in the
database of the ad server and distributed to it's clients!

It is possible to set your browser to the "Do Not Accept
Any Cookies" option. I recommend you try it once, if only
for the enlightenment about how many sources are collecting
information about you. Some web pages will send as many as
a dozen requests for cookies and many web sites tell you
flatly that in order to use their online service "cookies
must be enabled on your browser" to use the site.

It gets tiring and frustrating clicking the "OK" button
in the warning box that appears each time your browser
detects a request to set a cookie on your hard drive,
if you've checked the "notify me" option in preferences.
If you want to know who's collected information about you
online, I've discovered a neat little free download that
will keep you informed. Cookie Viewer software:

If you want to get a clearer picture of how cookies can
be used to invade your privacy, I recommend an amazing
demonstration of how you can be followed around the web
without your knowledge. has set up a demo at:

You'll see how providing information in bits and pieces
to multiple web sites creates a cumulative database on
your travels, habits and preferences online. Prepare to
be mildly miffed or fully outraged, depending on your
level of concern with invasion of privacy.

The final frontier (one becoming legislated by the FTC)
is that of information gathered by web sites in order
to provide ŅservicesÓ to you online such as chat, email,
directories, instant messaging and other membership
type services. It has become routine for each of these
online service providers to ask detailed information
about you when you register with them.

The Federal Trade Commission ( ) has
already established the "ChildrenÕs Online Privacy
Protection Act" or COPPA to require those businesses
that collect information from children under 13 to make
that information restricted to third parties such as
advertisers. The FTC also requires businesses to obtain
"verifiable parental consent" in order to collect any
information from kids and provide parents access to
and allow them to edit or delete any information there.

To find out more about the FTC requirements, visit: and review the news and compliance
issues facing online businesses that collect information
from children.

It all adds up to one very daunting task if you seek
anonymity online, although one web site also provides
Ņsafe surfingÓ by offering a service by which your
information is disguised through a proxy server:

and a software download to provide privacy ratings:

What it all comes down to is this, you must be fully
informed about what information is gathered about you,
how it will be used and to whom it is made available.
Practice Safe Surfing!

This article is available online at:

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Mike Banks Valentine operates WebSite101 Short Course, Small
Business Internet Tutorial

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  June 9, 2001