Corrections or additions?
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,
for Dummies," who kicks off a series discussing current and
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
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 firstname.lastname@example.org).
Levine claims because of the increasing number of home computers with
Internet access, there is now a huge potential for the abuse of
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
of database matching. The resulting personal profiles are rife with
potential for abuse. "This has really changed the meaning of
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
over to the courthouse or municipal building. But advances in
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:
the information attached to hits at an AIDS-oriented website and
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,
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)
by Rush Holt with Heather Wilson
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
about whether desired information is really necessary, and, if
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
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
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
he says, and function only to make sites easier to navigate. But
acknowledges they are another "tradeoff of privacy for
His talk will cover "the history of computerizing public
and he hopes to unearth his own first Princeton library card, an
of earlier non-computerized times, to kick off the discussion.
— Caroline Calogero
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