(this page is part of the Family Guide to Digital Freedom, 2007 edition. Please do read that introduction to know more about the Guide, especially if you mean to comment this page. Thanks)

Are digital communications safe? Can they be used without hassles?

Nearly instant communication systems like email, Internet Chat, Instant Messaging and so on, at no cost or for a very low flat fee, are the real killer application of the Internet. Today, however, they are still everything but private, safe or hard to forge. Unlike phone calls, email can remain stored in multiple independent locations, even after the message has reached its destination, and presents new opportunities for surveillance.

A copy of a message may be stored on the sender’s computer, his or her ISP’s server, the recipient’s ISP’s server, and the recipient’s computer, as well as back-ups on any of the machines it traveled through. Furthermore, any one of those machines may be equipped with one of the systems for real time text-scanning already discussed in the first chapter on privacy.

Similar considerations apply to Internet Relay Chat, Instant Messaging and so on. Therefore, now is the right moment to think seriously about the security and privacy of email and all other text-based digital communications. The moment when they will merge with phone text messages and almost everybody will be forced to use them at least once for something important is close.

In particular, it is necessary to start learning how to crypt all digital messages, and about whether it’s safe to leave them in the hands of third-party providers without serious guarantees on their privacy policy. Remember again that, even if you don’t use these systems, your government and managers already do.

The Big Webmail Brother

Email can be read and received even without installing a dedicated program on your computer, with the same web browsers which are used to visit normal websites. You go to a certain Internet address, log in with a user name and password, and in the following window you’ll be able to read and write email. A big disadvantage of these “webmail” systems is that most of them provide even less privacy and security than traditional email. As harmless and convenient they may seem, they are one of the best places to be spied on, and a proof that you must understand at least the basics of what’s happening around us.

Some webmail providers automatically alter all the email you read in a disturbing way. If there is any Internet address in the message (as when your friends send email saying “Hey, check out this article at www.so-and-so.com”) if you click on it you don’t go to that site right away. You are redirected without noticing to a server in the email provider’s site, which immediately redirects you to where you thought you were going in the first place. In other words, rather than going directly to www.so-and-so.com, you are forced to pass through their server first. Sometimes this is a feature of the webmail software which actually protects the users in case they follow a link to malicious websites.

In other cases, instead, this is done to register any website for which you demonstrate interest by clicking on its link. This allows the provider to build a profile of your personality that could be used to customize the banners you see, or even be sold to third parties. Note that even if you were forced to agree to their use of personal data to get the account, you must know just how much personal data they have, and that, whatever the law may say, opening people’s mail, even automatically, is a gray area to say the least. The Digifreedom website teaches you how to recognize such webmail services.

Continues here: The plague of spam email and its impact on family Internet fees