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2010 April 6 - 12:00 am

TECHNOLOGY TODAY: Protecting Your Privacy Online Involves Some Tradeoffs

The concept of privacy is a fascinating one. It has evolved over time, and different countries regard it differently. Online, it plays out in some interesting ways. The bottom line is you may not be protecting what you personally regard as private matters to the extent that you think.

Privacy is related to anonymity, though the concepts differ in important ways. Anonymity deals with hiding who you are. Privacy deals with protecting information about yourself.

Privacy in general is more ingrained in Western culture than elsewhere, and its importance has increased in modern times. The word “privacy” doesn’t even appear in the U.S. Constitution or Bill of Rights, and aside from the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition of unreasonable governmental searches, the government early on had nothing to say on the matter.

In the old days of family farms and small towns, everybody knew everybody else, and everything about everybody else. Privacy was only addressed nationally when future Supreme Court justice Louis Brandeis wrote a famous Harvard Law Review article in 1890 titled “The Right to Privacy.”

Much more deeply entrenched in American values is the right to free expression, established by the First Amendment, and it can conflict with privacy rights. In America the freedom to speak up, as long as you tell the truth, typically trumps the right to keep matters about yourself secret, with the more prominent and public you are the fewer privacy rights you have.

Attitudes are different in many continental European countries. The European Convention on Human Rights, enacted in 1953, states, “Everyone has the right to respect for his private and family life, his home and his correspondence.” In Germany, France, Italy and elsewhere, the dignity of the individual and the protection against having your life exposed to public view weigh heavily.

The online search company Google recently ran into legal trouble in Italy by permitting the posting of a video that exposed students bullying an autistic boy. An Italian judge in this case deemed privacy more important than free speech. It’s inconceivable that such a video, truthfully exposing an injustice, would provoke legal authorities in the U.S.

In the U.S., you’re more likely to get in trouble by voluntarily providing information about yourself. Online scams abound that try to trick people into revealing personal financial information, including your Social Security number, credit card information, bank account information, and passwords for online auction, shopping and payment sites.

Never respond to emails that ask for this information, and be wary of clicking on links in email that purportedly take you to legitimate Web sites but in actuality take you to bogus sites. When in doubt, go to the site manually by typing in its address or by selecting a favorite or bookmark in your Web browser.

Another way people’s privacy is compromised is when you or friends of yours reveal personal information about you at social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter and through blogs and online discussion groups.

Last year, through a class project at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, two students analyzed more than 4,000 Facebook profiles, including links to friends. The students were able to predict with 78 percent accuracy whether any given profile belonged to a gay male, regardless of whether or not the person wanted to be identified as a homosexual.

One of the enticements of blogs and other forms of online communication is sitting alone in front of your computer and letting your hair down. You reveal your innermost thoughts and feelings, your most outrageous adventures and mischievous misdeeds, to anyone who chances upon your words.

But that anyone can include your boss, a human resources person you interview with in the future, the father of your fiancée, or your children. One rule of thumb is that you should feel free to say what you think, but you should also think before you say it.

No matter how careful you are, it’s unavoidable that some degree of personal privacy must be compromised in our increasingly interconnected and digitized society. The global village is in some ways a return to the villages of earlier times.

As long as it’s anonymous, there’s nothing inherently wrong with companies gathering information about you to deliver content and advertising that are more closely related to your interests. All of those free websites you enjoy need to pay their bills and turn a profit to continue operating.

Giving up some privacy is a fair price to pay for easy access to a new world of service.

Comments: editor@ccweek.com

Reid Goldsborough is a syndicated columnist and author of the book Straight Talk About the Information Superhighway. He can be reached at reidgold@comcast.net or www.reidgoldsborough.com.

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