Computer Pro to Internet User: Take Care

We really ought to know what we're getting ourselves into. We're spending so much time and energy these days on the Internet. We're cheering for Tiger Woods, buying stock, reading Dilbert, admiring Sandra Bullock and Brad Pitt photos, and downloading tax forms. It's a brave new world, and it's winning headlines and subscribers daily - not to mention plenty of cash.

The Internet has become a fixture in our lives, a Web address flashing on the screen at the end of every television commercial, a virtual office, travel agent, and game room. It's been a radical and rapid transformation of working and playing and communicating in our society.

Social Security and personal privacy

And the transformation is just beginning: The Internet will be the primary source of communication and information in the next century. The Internet will be our jobs and entertainment, our bank and library, our TV and newspaper, our government and postal service.

Earlier this year the Social Security Administration started to use the Internet to supply individuals with information on their benefits and earnings. It quickly suspended the service after shock and outrage about privacy emerged.

But if we are truly surprised that our privacy could be threatened by a Web site on the Internet then we definitely do not understand what we're getting ourselves into.

We do not understand that the essential details of our lives are dangling out there, whether or not we actually use the Internet.

Simply having a Social Security number, or even a Mastercard or video-club membership, is enough. Income, credit history, investment holdings, employment history, tax records - it all ends up on the Internet for almost anyone to examine. Your home address and phone number, for example, are about 10 seconds away from anyone in the world.

Of course, credit-card numbers and tax records may be somewhat difficult to track down. Systems are secured by things like passwords, personal identification numbers (PINs), and "firewalls" - boundaries beyond which the general public supposedly cannot pass. But security is notoriously unreliable, and the potential payoffs for crime are incredibly high.

Think of it: All that information, all in one place. Some of it is already public record - but it was far less a threat to you and me when it was scattered across millions of desks, file cabinets, and individual PCs. What could a con artist do with your credit history? A violent offender with your home address? A business competitor with details of lawsuits pending against you?

We do not understand that every move we make is potentially traceable - that, wherever we stop on the Net, we leave an electronic breadcrumb in the form of an "IP address," a computer's equivalent of a Social Security number. For example, a visit to American Airlines on the Web announces to the world that you're considering a trip; a visit to Playboy, that you're interested in sexual material. Again, it may not be easy to trace your movements - but it's possible. In this society, if something is possible and lucrative, it is done.

And then there's e-mail, rapidly becoming a postal service for the 21st century. But an envelope given to a postal worker stays in federal hands until it arrives at its destination. E-mail messages flow through miles of wire, through unknown computers in unknown cities, past unknown computer users. At any point an e-mail message can be intercepted, copied, read, deleted, even distributed to the world.

The Internet is the Wild West of the late 20th century, and e-mail is the Pony Express. The fact is that the rise of the Internet heralds the end of privacy in modern life.

Improving the situation

Can the situation improve? Of course it can. But not on its own.

Regulation will help. Prudence and self-restraint will help. Technology will help. Most important, society must finally understand what it's gotten itself into, what price tag the Internet carries. We have simply not taken the time to understand the true costs of the Internet, not only in dollars but in all the currencies of our lives - creativity, productivity, intimacy, safety, community ... privacy.

Until we recognize where the Internet is taking us, and where it's already taken us - much less where we want it to take us - we'll continue to be surprised by stories like the Social Security Internet controversy. We'll continue to ignore the fact that in our haste to get online, we've offered our housekeys to millions of people, many with time on their hands and greed (or worse) in their hearts. And sooner or later, the least welcome strangers are going to come in and make themselves right at home.

* Daniel Nahmod is a senior programmer/analyst for Baxter Healthcare in Deerfield, Ill.

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