'Your reputation walks in the door with you," my grandmother taught me. She was telling me to be an honorable boy and never do anything that would embarrass our family or myself.

Her words surfaced as I was thinking about how personal information on the Internet acts like a "reputation." And how it lasts whether we want it to or not.

Visit a few Web sites for automobiles, or movies, or Broadway shows, and a profile of the kind of restaurants you visit - with social class and income assumptions built in - is generated. And then sold to advertisers.

If all the various profiles of an individual are merged into one database, and this database also includes mortgage payment, college alumni association, medical records required by insurance companies - a fairly precise picture develops.

In turn, this picture can be studied by any number of individuals or organizations. It can be done with or without a person's knowledge or consent. And shared with anyone (through a credit agency) or everyone (by a news organization's broadcasting it for whatever reason).

To say our wired world has flipped traditional concepts of privacy on their head is like saying oil refineries spew petrochemicals into the air.

But an uncrossable line of privacy has to be drawn somewhere on the Internet. Personal genetic information is a good place to start. Such data belongs to one person and one person alone (see article right). And short of written permission to share it, no one should be allowed to transmit it.

I take for granted that somewhere on the Internet my "reputation" is being developed. I haven't taken for granted what is said about me. My grandmother's advice still acts like a sixth sense.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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