Do we still have some privacy, part 2


(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)

Can your files die with you?

Another, completely new category of privacy-related problems has just started to surface: what happens when somebody dies and his or her will, bank account number, letters, pending payments and so on are stored in a computer, whose password nobody knows anymore? What if that computer doesn’t even belong to the person who passed away? What happens if the password was a biometric one? How can the relatives use it, assuming it wasn’t destroyed with the rest of the body in a car accident or fire?

This is not some hypothetical future scenario: when poet William Talcott died in September 2006, his daughter couldn’t notify most of his contacts because he kept their addresses in a password protected online account and his Internet Provider refused to release the information due to privacy laws. The year before, that same provider had already had to be forced by a court order to provide access to the e-mail of a U.S. Marine killed in Iraq to his father: the issue, however, is still open, also because it isn’t clear yet if it’s a privacy or property rights issue. In the meantime, the only thing to do is to make very clear (on paper, please!) who you want to have access to your computers when you die!

This isn’t even just a family problem: it can seriously impact on other people’s work and financial security. In 2002 a Norwegian researcher took to the grave the password he had chosen for an electronic library index which would have taken about four years of work to recreate.

Probably the only safe solution that remains is to write down all these data on a sheet of paper put alongside your will or in a safe with other important papers anyway. A more technically savy solution would be to write everything in a file, encrypt it, write the corresponding password in a letter stored in your safe deposit box and distribute the encrypted file to some trusted individuals.

It is equally essential to remember the opposite side of the coin: what if some fatal accident happens to you while your computer still contain files, from old pictures or love letters to logs of chat sessions, that you wouldn’t like others to see?

Malicious software

Some malicious software programs, whenever a computer is connected to the Internet, can report to a remote website the user name and Internet address of the computer, which programs were installed on it and which sites or files had been visited or downloaded from the net, all this obviously without giving any visible sign of activity. Such programs could also destroy important documents stored in the computer, or secretly transmit them to third parties. Technically speaking, no private or public computer owner can guarantee that nobody is playing such tricks on his or her computer, unless they have complete control on both the software and the hardware which are used. The users who are not computer experts, instead, should still be able to install software which independent professionals have had the possibility to check and certify as free from such dangers.


All these are examples that a digital world makes it much easier to violate our privacy, but not in the way we believe, and that it is not “the Internet’s fault”. It is true that today it is much easier than ten years ago to spread false rumors or private information, or even bully teachers or school mates online. At the same time, even if these problems do exist and cannot be ignored, there are many interesting online services that would be impossible or much more difficult to use without computers and the Internet: what is important is that, even if you can’t understand the technicalities, you are aware of the things that may be happening under the hood, and let them happen only if, when, and how you want. As this book will show, it’s not so difficult.

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