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How we're losing our privacy online

From personal photos circulated inadvertently on Facebook to ‘Web bugs’ that monitor our buying habits, the Internet is exposing the private us to the public more than any technology in history. Here’s why you should care – and how to avoid it.

By Staff writer / August 31, 2009

Jacob Turcotte

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Boston

Gail Heyman didn’t go on Facebook often. In March Mrs. Heyman, who lives in the Atlanta area, opened an account just to keep up with a few friends. She found herself rarely checking the social-networking site, letting days or even weeks slip by between visits.

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But in late June, she received a phone call from a cousin. He had responded to what he thought was her emergency plea for money on Facebook and wired her $2,000 – in London. As he thought about it more, he decided to call her just to double-check.

Heyman, who was still in Georgia, was astounded. Someone had figured out her password, taken over her account, and posted the fraudulent request. “They told my [Facebook] friends that I had been mugged, and that I was in a hotel and that I needed money,” she says.

Her cousin was able to quickly contact Western Union and cancel the transfer before the money was picked up by the imposter in London. Heyman, still a little shaken, hasn’t reopened her Facebook account but hopes to get back online in the future. “It’s made me think differently about doing things online,” she says.

The infiltration of Heyman’s account is the most egregious form of an invasion of personal privacy that is becoming one of the most pressing issues of the Digital Age. As we live more of our lives online, entrusting our most private information to social networks and other Web-based entities, the Internet is becoming our primary means of communication, as well as our filing cabinet; our shoebox to store photos, videos, and letters; and our safe-deposit box of valuable documents.

But the question looms: How safe or discreet is this material?

Not very, according to a growing number of experts. As we slip further into the Internet era, they argue that we are every day surrendering more of the private us to the public domain. Much of it is innocuous. We send a friend an edgy joke by e-mail, which gets passed around until, at some point, our sense of humor ends up getting deconstructed by half the population of Moldova.

Much of it is just annoying. We go online to buy something and a “Web bug,” a software program that monitors our purchases, develops a profile of our buying habits that is sold to businesses. Suddenly, our inbox is flooded with daily pitches for self-coiling garden hoses and mail-order beef from New Zealand.

Some of it is harmful, such as the theft of Heyman’s identity or the photograph we posted on a personal website, thinking it was funny, but, 10 years later, comes back to haunt us in a job interview.

All this may be the price we pay for progress. The Internet, after all, is an incredible force for good, bringing unlimited information and potential for communication at the tap of a keyboard. Isn’t a little loss of privacy worth being able to do so much online? As Scott McNealy, a cofounder of Sun Microsystems, put it famously 10 years ago: “You have zero privacy anyway. Get over it.”

Yet many people don’t want their lives to be so transparent just because they use the Web to shop, socialize, and pay a few bills. To them, the erosion of privacy in the Internet Age poses a threat to our emotional and financial well-being, as well as our basic dignity as human beings.