What must be done to protect privacy?


(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)

The first and most important thing to do to solve the privacy problems described at the beginning of this book is to not believe that you are immune; the second is to acknowledge the problem without getting hysterical. The third is to implement, or ask that governments implement, the social, technical and legislative solutions described in the rest of this chapter. Many of the right things to do are based on common sense, more than deep technical knowledge, and most of them are valid and do-able even for people who don’t own a computer.

Social and cultural steps: there is only one you, and now everybody can see it

As F. Stutzman, a researcher at the University of North Carolina puts it, “you don’t go walking round the mall telling people whether you are straight or gay”. Almost everybody instead, especially youngsters, still behaves online as we’ve been used to doing for millennia: on the assumption, that is, that behavior and language at home, in the office or at the pub can be different and remain separate. In a sense, we all rely greatly on this segregation of different contexts to function. Online, however, keeping the several sides of our personalities and lives separate requires a much more conscious effort and skills other than those most have used so far, or are technically capable of using.

“Jean” may insult or ridiculize “Nick” in some online chat just for the fun of it and, on the same day, answer a job offer for English Literature teachers published online by Mr Jones, the principal of the Community College of her native town. But there is no guarantee that Mr Jones (or any of his students) is not “Nick”, or that he won’t easily recognize “Jean” just because insults and job applications took place in two different computer windows, or under two different names. According to a July 2006 survey, 27% of USA employers already check the profile of all their job candidates online. This happens in the same world where many people who use the Internet still mix everything from their CV to their musical and sexual preferences on the same home page, or manage the same data in such a way that they all turn up together anyway in one single, public Internet search, no matter who performs that search.

The Internet gives us all the power to tell the world about a boyfriend who cheated on us, even if it was partially our fault and even though our complaint stays online to demonstrate that we acted without real consideration. It is essential to keep this in mind and teach it to minors, to protect their privacy and future. In this sense, the Internet may even end up having a beneficial effect on manners and social responsibility.

Of course, there is also potential for dangers and abuse in using computers and the Internet: while indiscriminate Internet censorship is bad, saying to a child “OK, put your pictures, feelings and address on the net for everybody’s pleasure” cannot be done without control.

The solution is easy to explain: parents must watch over their children anyway, whatever they do, as well as talk and listen to them. If computers are involved, asking that the whole Internet be censored wouldn’t solve anything (even if this were possible). The right thing to do is to make sure that the computers at home and school practice some kind of access control that blocks what YOU consider to be inappropriate.

Technical steps

The most common way to have your credit card number stolen is still through old fashioned shoplifting, copying it when you hand it over at a store and so on, even if you never use a computer. It is true that Internet purchases give thieves many more ways to abuse an already stolen credit card number, or that using your credit card online feels much less secure than handing it over to a waiter who then disappears into another room for a few minutes. It is essential, however, to be paranoid only when really necessary. Don’t let your credit card disappear from your sight and check its balance as often as possible. In this sense, technology, that is the possibility to check the balance online, any day and time of the day, is a godsend.

If you own a computer, take the steps described on the Digifreedom website to protect your privacy. They go from learning how to encrypt and digitally sign all your personal and work email to using a professional and privacy conscious email provider. Also remember to always take the time to carefully check the privacy and data retention policies of all the online services you use.

Political steps

There is no longer any doubt that every family has to ask for better laws to protect its privacy from the risks and accidents described earlier in the book. In this context, it is important to never forget that the most important thing is not to refuse technology tout-court but put, whenever it’s necessary, clear and fair limits on how it can be used.

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