Some practical advice on protecting your identity online

It's possible to conduct personal and business matters on the Internet - and still maintain your privacy.

You are being watched. Followed. Tracked. Your every move is monitored. "They" know many things about you - the places you visit, where you shop, what kind of ice cream you like to eat, how much money you make in a year, your Social Security number, your favorite musician. The list goes on.

No, this isn't a promo for an episode of "The X-Files." Nor is it something from the realm of makebelieve. If you're on the Internet, and if you're not being vigilant, it is possible for governments and companies to compile all sorts of information about you and your family.

Occasionally, you'll hear someone (normally someone defending the questionable habits of a company caught snooping on people) say that trying to keep our personal information safe online is useless, because with a little effort, most of the information can be found through other methods.

Perhaps that is true. But if you're interested in making an effort to preserve your privacy online, there are several things you can do.

Turn off your cookies

Simple and effective, but it can be annoying. Cookies are small text files placed on your computer by Web sites. In some cases, they allow you to come and go from a Web site without having to enter a username or password each time. (The New York Times site works this way.) Other sites use them to track your movements when you visit their Web pages. Whatever the reason, cookies provide companies with information on your Web surfing habits.

Newer versions of Microsoft Internet Explorer and Netscape's Communicator browsers allow easy deletion of cookies. Or you can just turn them off completely, although this means you won't be able to visit some sites.

If you want to know how to disable your cookies, use any good search engine and enter the words (without the quotes) "cookies AND disable," and you'll find lots of information on how to do it.

Develop an alter-ego

Many Internet Service Providers and commercial online companies allow you to create more than one account. For instance, AOL allows you to create up to seven accounts on one main subscription to their service. This allows you to have one account for personal e-mail, and another for commercial purposes.

Even better, AOL allows you to turn off the "receive e-mail" function. So you can give companies a legit e-mail address, but not receive any e-mail from them or any of the companies to which they will sell your e-mail address.

Surf or buy anonymously

If you are really concerned about your privacy, this option may be your best bet. There are now online privacy protection companies that will allow you to surf and shop on the Web anonymously, sometimes for a fee. Two examples of this trend are eCognito.com and Freedom.net.

eCognito.com acts as a broker between merchants and online users. When you register for the eCognito service (which is free), you download software that allows you to shop anonymously with participating merchants.

The merchant is provided only with an identifier from eCognito that allows you to make your purchase without sharing your creditcard number, e-mail address, etc. The merchant can still personalize services or contact you by e-mail, but only if you have opted for that feature. Plus, eCognito provides a different identifier to each merchant you visit, so they can't get together and 'compare notes' on your shopping habits.

Freedom.net is a Canadian company that offers a program that enables you to surf the Web anonymously. Their free software allows you to protect your PC from being hacked, removes ads from your Web browser and manages your cookies so that you can delete them at will. For $49.95 a year, you can purchase their high-end services, which allow you to send and receive untraceable, encrypted e-mail (using your regular e-mail account), and to anonymously browse and chat.

Buy a Mac and avoid using Microsoft Outlook for e-mail

If you worry about being hacked, buy a Mac. It's not that crackers (bad-guy hackers) couldn't burn Mac users, but the larger number of PC users make them a much more attractive target.

So, most crackers spend their time working on ways to crack PCs. Mac is also a more secure platform, primarily because it doesn't have a command shell or allow remote logins (unless you force it to do so).

The same is true of Outlook. It's a great program, with great features, but almost every e-mail virus, bug, worm, Web bug, etc., is designed to bring Outlook down. An alternative is Eudora, a good e-mail program that doesn't seem to suffer from as many problems.

Pay attention

There is a wealth of information about your privacy and how to protect it on the Web. Two great websites to put on your bookmark list are www.privacyfoundation.org and www.epic.org (the Electronic Privacy Information Center). The Privacy Foundation is part of the Privacy Center at the University of Denver.

The site's chief technology officer is Richard Smith, the man most responsible for media focus on Internet privacy. You can subscribe to his free e-mail tip sheet, which keeps you up to date on the latest attempts to invade your privacy and what you can do to protect yourself. EPIC is a public interest research center based in Washington. It offers a great collection of online resources about privacy and also provides information on how you can act politically to motivate your government representatives to protect your privacy.

As I said earlier, it may be impossible to totally protect privacy online. But there's no need to throw up your hands and give up. If you use the methods listed above, you'll go a long way toward making your online experience a more private, less intrusive one.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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