Implausible as it may sound today, Benjamin Franklin’s postal service helped boot the British during the Revolutionary War. As the first Postmaster General of the Second Continental Congress, Franklin’s objective was to establish a system that could consistently and securely convey intelligence between Congress and its armies.
These days, the postal service is decidedly less revolutionary and increasingly known for junk mail and being a vector for identity theft. The same mix of powerful potential and privacy pitfalls can be said about the Internet.
In the same way that the postal system Franklin established uses unique addresses to deliver mail, the Internet uses unique web addresses — shorthanded as domain names — to index webpages. Domain names allow Internet users to find what they’re looking for quickly and easily.
But as is the case with most technology, there is a tradeoff between convenience and privacy.
In order to create a website, a domain must be registered and personal information (name, address, phone number, email address, etc.) of the registrant is collected. This information is made publically available through the Whois search directory.
Why does protecting personal information matter?
Indexing the web with domain names facilitates quick and easy navigation for Internet users and holds domain owners accountable for their websites. But it also gives online criminals access to information that can be used in scams.
Spammers have been known to target email addresses in the Whois directory. The suddenly famous — including President Trump’s new press secretary Sean Spicer — find their personal contacts splashed across the Internet.
Fortunately, domain owners can keep their personal information private and comply with registration standards using certain tools, like WhoisGuard. Leveraging these tools can help domain owners avoid spam and identity theft.
How to protect personal information when registering a domain
WhoisGuard is a privacy protection service that prevents people from seeing the name, address, phone number, and email of a domain owner when a Whois search is run. Instead, it offers the address and information of the public Whois — a listing without specific personal information — thus protecting domain owners.
It’s tough to know exactly what Ben Franklin would think about online privacy. But his understanding of the need to convey information through organized and secure channels is a precursor to the reality that we face today: access to information and privacy are important features of a free society.