Seeking privacy in an age of access

A friend of mine can't resist clicking on "forward" whenever jokes - they mostly range from lame to inane - get zapped into his e-mail box.

Ah. Got a friend like that, too?

He's a big sharer. The messages have invariably been cc'd to every name on his personal distribution list. And since he and I once worked at the same company, I find that list to be a remarkably deep directory of far-flung mutual acquaintances.

So I mine it. Once it landed me a referral to a source for a story. Another time, a freelance job.

Nice little windfall database. I'd long since lost track of many of these people, owing to my less than meticulous record-keeping.

Innocuous? Sure. I'm not hitting anyone up for money. And I'd never dream of delivering this list of people - all professionals with desirable demographic traits - to any list-broker or marketer.

But my friend may be passing around a leaky bucket. Should a message recipient casually pass it along to anyone outside the circle, this bundle of addresses goes bobbing off in the whitewater of Web traffic. To be fished out downstream. By anybody.

More people, I'm hearing, are now using the "blind cc" option, shielding lists like my friend's.

So what do you get for being better-known in the Web universe? More spam. Invitations to trade data for products and services.

Tougher to avoid are the more systematic bids to obtain your data. The New York Times's Peter H. Lewis recently called the Internet "the most voracious vacuum of personal data in history."

Many companies tout privacy policies as if they were inviolable. But can they guard your data, when some of the best can't yet defend themselves from hackers?

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(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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