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This article by Caroline Calogero was prepared for the September

27, 2000 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

On Line Privacy — For Dummies

A prisoner of war needs only to provide his name, rank

and serial number. To just register at some websites necessitates

submitting oodles more information than is required by even enemy

captors. "We’re really at a watershed here," says John

R. Levine, computer guru and author of the best seller,

"Internet

for Dummies," who kicks off a series discussing current and

emerging

technologies at the Princeton Public Library on Tuesday, October 3,

at 7 p.m.

Levine is a graduate of Princeton High School and belonged to the

group of high school students known as R.E.S.I.S.T.O.R.S (Radically

Emphatic Students Interested in Science, Technology Or Research

Studies).

As explained by an article written by his father, Bob Levine (U.S.

1, May 20, 1998), they met from the late ’60s to the mid ’70s in a

barn in Hopewell Township and later at the E-Quad at Princeton

University. They taught themselves programming, "played" with

computers, and accomplished wonders.

Levine holds both a bachelor’s and a Ph.D. in computer science from

Yale. Author or co-author of more than a dozen books, his Internet

for Dummies series (written with his sister Margie) has over 2 million

copies in print. He is currently lecturing, writing, and consulting

on Internet and computer topics. He is also a board member of the

Coalition Against Unsolicited Commercial E-mail (CAUCE), an anti-spam

group (E-mail johnl@iecc.com).

Levine claims because of the increasing number of home computers with

Internet access, there is now a huge potential for the abuse of

personal

information. Consumers routinely spit up name, social security number,

address, and telephone number for credit card applications, emergency

room visits, frequent flyer clubs, and website registrations.

Levine points out it is now perfectly legal for companies to combine

this information, gathered for one purpose, with financial profiles,

health records, or your history of Internet site visits via the

wizardry

of database matching. The resulting personal profiles are rife with

potential for abuse. "This has really changed the meaning of

what’s

private and public information," he says.

Some potentially interesting information has always been a matter

of public record available to anyone who had the wherewithal to

traipse

over to the courthouse or municipal building. But advances in

computing

have pushed the problem of information abuse to the foreground. Deeds

and property records are open to perusal. Anyone can find out who

owned a parcel of land and what price they paid. But with the linking

of large databases and big time computing power, it’s now much easier

to find all the properties owned by an individual.

"By collecting little scraps of information you can come up with

horrendously intrusive stuff," says Levine. For example:

Collecting

the information attached to hits at an AIDS-oriented website and

selling

those names to health insurance companies as people whose eligibility

for coverage should be questioned. Spam, the junk mail of cyberspace,

is also a privacy issue says Levine. In the current environment,

"spammers

steal E-mail addresses" legally.

This problem of no accountability for "using and re-purposing

data" is not universal. In Europe, data collected for one purpose

cannot be reused without the consent of the participants, Levine says.

Levine’s interest in online privacy has been fueled by recent events

such as the policy turnabout at Amazon.com. After years of a guarding

customer information, personal data now may be resold by the site.

Levine explains a touch of paranoia comes with his awareness of the

amount and ease of data collection. "Computer people are paranoid

by nature," he says.

Levine supports the bi-partisan "Can Spam Act" (HR 2162)

introduced

by Rush Holt with Heather Wilson (R New Mexico) and

Gary

Miller (R California). The bill has passed the House and is now

awaiting consideration by the Senate. In this talk Levine will be

sounding the alarm rather than offering quick fix solutions to the

average Internet user. "We need opinion leadership" on this

issue of online privacy he says.

His advice on how to protect yourself is straightforward — decline

to deal with those businesses that don’t respect privacy, ask

questions

about whether desired information is really necessary, and, if

possible,

fudge some of the requested data.

Those savings cards applications necessary to garner the bargains

at supermarket checkouts don’t really need your banking and residence

history. Admittedly, this sin of omission can backfire on applications

for credit cards and mortgages.

Use and misuse of social security numbers is one of his pet peeves.

He admits that as a graduate student at Yale in 1970 he refused to

accept a student ID card that used his social security number. His

protest got the university to issue its first ID card with a

non-social

security number.

But don’t let concerns about a purchase from an E-business disturb

your sound sleep. Levine spends no time worrying if the dark side

will intercept the encrypted data stream containing his credit card

number. Explaining that his residence in Trumansburg, New York, is

"a long way to a decent bookstore," Levine admits to both

banking and shopping online. And further he advises not to be

"distracted

by these glamorous but arcane threats." He opines credit card

numbers are most easily stolen from waste paper in the dumpster.

The public is also obsessed by "cookies," tag files placed

on a user’s computer by websites, but "the vast majority are

benign"

he says, and function only to make sites easier to navigate. But

Levine

acknowledges they are another "tradeoff of privacy for

convenience."

His talk will cover "the history of computerizing public

records"

and he hopes to unearth his own first Princeton library card, an

artifact

of earlier non-computerized times, to kick off the discussion.

— Caroline Calogero


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