Tips for maintaining your privacy

How can you keep details about your life to yourself? Start by knowing how companies collect it, then seal off those avenues.

The Internet has made it far easier to collect personal information. Internet businesses install "cookies" on customers' computers to track their activity. Even without cookies, though, Web sites can see your computer's address, and from that get your e-mail address and name.

The best defense: Install software on your computer that protects your anonymity, says Marc Rotenberg, president of the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington.

This software can forge your computer's Internet address and your e-mail, set up a fire wall if you have a constant broadband connection, encrypt e-mail and sensitive files, and block cookies and banner ads.

The problem is that it requires technical proficiency to install and operate.

Beyond that, Laura Mazzarella, an attorney in the Bureau of Consumer Protection at the Federal Trade Commission, offers these tips on guarding your privacy:

* Never give out information unnecessarily. If merchants ask for your Social Security number, ask why - and whether you can give only part of it for identification. Otherwise this key number unlocks just about every fact anyone has ever collected about you.

Note that millions of consumers routinely fill out product-warranty cards with personal information. Don't! In most states, warranties are valid by law even without mailing in these cards.

* Read the privacy policy of any vendor you do business with. Find out if it sells data to others or only gathers it for internal use. If a company sells data, they should offer to let you opt out. If a company doesn't post a privacy policy, walk away.

* Set preferences in your Web browser to warn you before accepting cookies or sending personal information that isn't encrypted. Encryption may not be foolproof, but sending a credit-card number down an encrypted line is far more secure than giving it out over the phone.

* Put your name on mail-blocking lists like the one run by the Direct Marketing Association. But beware: These lists generally block all marketing mail, so you won't get the catalogs that you want. To keep some catalogs, you have to write to every marketer you don't want to get mail from individually. If you remove your name from someone's list and they still send you mail, contact the Federal Trade Commission.

* Check out www.junkbusters.com and www.epic.org for online privacy tips.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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