Think Your Privacy Is Safe on the Internet? Think Again

Monday, 25 November 2002, 2:07 PM EST

Today you can do more than simply resign yourself to having your every online step or utterance monitored, tracked and recorded. Many tools offer protection against common online privacy violations.

Such measures, experts warn, are crucial for Web surfers. "Paranoia is when you set up a panic room in your house," says Jay Foley, a computer-security expert at the Identity Theft Resource Center in San Diego, Calif. "If you do simple things that cut down on someone else's ability to steal your information and harm you, that's not paranoia -- it's simple common sense. The risk is clearly there."

Indeed, despite advances in computer security, hacking continues virtually unabated. Unknown attackers recently stole the Social Security numbers of 265,000 state employees in California by breaking into a state payroll system. Privacy threats lurk even in normal Web usage. Consider the small tags, benignly called cookies, that are automatically downloaded to users' computers when they visit certain Web sites. The cookies are designed to identify the users of a Web page, and can store information about their identity and shopping preferences. This allows, for example, to recognize you when you return to the site and to recommend new products to you. But the cookies also allow Web advertisers to track, on behalf of their clients, the Web sites that individual computer users have visited and whether they clicked on online banner ads.

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