Thursday, November 8, 2007

Reaction: Individual privacy in an online world

(This post is part of an assignment for the class I am taking, Global Impact of New Communication Technologies at the School of Journalism and Mass Communication, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. This week, I will be posting reactions to my classmates' entries from last week -here is my example-)

By Marcie Barnes

Today's post is a reaction to classmate Josh Voorhees' entry titled "Individual privacy in an online world", from his blog "A Newspaper with Infinite Bureaus". In it, Josh makes a lot of great points concerning online privacy, including the very true statement that" it is almost impossible to navigate the Internet while leaving no digital footprint behind."

I think I am careful on the Internet. But there are always going to be people out their bound and determined to fulfill their goals - usually motivated by greed - who may essentially "rip you off". I also probably place too much trust in corporations to keep the information I do provide safe. Google probably has the most information about me, since I use them for a lot of business, personal, and educational purposes. I tend to trust Google - but they are, if anyone - today's Big Brother, and are big in the business of marketing, so don't doubt their intentions. And another way we leave ourselves vulnerable is in the increasing usage of public wireless networks. I found these tips from Microsoft on keeping yourself safe in a wireless environment; but the fact is: the public hotspots we are using more frequently are not secure, so please remember: never enter a credit card number or other sensitive information unless you are on a secure (preferably non-wireless) network!

Even when you don't give out your information, or are told it will be kept private, be very wary. As an example, the Yahoo! email address I use was set up, at first, for the purpose of entering on websites that require an email address. I only do this when the site promises not to share my information. Lo and behold, within a few months the spam was coming in at regular intervals. Perhaps this is due to "bad" spiders (similar to a crawler) which scour the Internet looking for email addresses published on pages to steal. This is why you are probably starting to see people publishing their addresses like this: "marcie0305(at)yahoo.com" in an attempt to try and fool them. But I am sure they will not be fooled for long.

I've also noticed that my Yahoo! page is showing me ads tailored to my geography (distance learning from the UNC system and NC State, for example) but I wonder if they also know I am a student and are targeting these ads at me for that reason? (Insert twilight zone music here.) Another site I visit for fun sometimes, Braingle.com, often shows me banner ads that say something like "Hey Raleigh! Get your ringtones here!" Now, I know I have never given any information to Braingle, but I gather that they are reading my I.P. address in order to glean my location. There is some concern from privacy advocates about this, of course. In the spirit of privacy, I will tell you that there are ways to surf anonymously, if you do a little looking around...

Finally, I can't help but to comment on Josh's #4 fear: "Big Brother" in which he says: "Imagine if your potential health insurance provider had access to your credit card bills and could tell how often you ate fast food, drank at a bar, or bought cigarettes, this information could then be used to set your premiums and deductibles." They do always ask about alcohol and cigarettes in the questionnaires, don't they? I think it's a stretch to think that our banks would invade our privacy like that (they'd lose a lot of customers). But I would like to see those insurance questionnaires include more comprehensive inquiries into your health factor, perhaps like the life expectancy calculator I wrote about here. That said, I do think it's possible that insurance companies may look for what you put out there - on social networks, possibly some of the sites you visit…hmmmm, gotta be careful what I purchase with that new Nationwide Visa!

1 comment:

Atomic Momma said...

I find it scary that you can access so much information on real estate tax records online. Also, did you know the local MLS has a feature to allow realtors to find out details about the mortgage you took out on your home? This feature enables a realtor to access information to find out the EXACT mortgage amount a person currently has on a home.

As for the health insurance comments...this too scares me. Hubby spent time in the military and they took DNA from him for "identification purposes" in case anything happened to him. He says he's out now, they don't need it...can he have it back? What's to prevent someone from selling this to the insurance industry?

Scary stuff. At the same time...the internet has put so much power at our fingertips to educate us. I just don't know.