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digital privacy

Your Digital Privacy

Computers store information. As you browse the Internet, you visit a lot of computers. Depending on what you do at any of those sites, there can be a lot of different places that know something about you. Identity theft is the fastest growing crime in America, so it's important to know how your footprints get left behind, and how to cover your tracks when you choose.

To test your web browser's security, visit scanit's browser security test website.

Cookies

These are not little sugary biscuits. When discussing the Internet or computers, the term "cookies" refers to a small file placed by a website that you visit to remember information about you for the next time you visit. Each cookie can only be accessed by the web site that put it there, so it is relatively secure. But what that web site does with any information it gathers on you or your browsing habits is subject to their own policies regarding privacy and marketing.

There is another term, "Third-party", which a web site will use to mean that they share information they get from your with other people.

Most web browsers have the ability to manage whether cookies are stored on your computer. Get Net Wise has excellent information on protecting your privacy.

Spyware/Adware

Adware, or Spyware, is a term used to mean little programs that a website will upload to your computer to run quietly in the background usually without your knowledge, to gather and report information about you and your web browsing habits. These are a little more insidious than cookies in that cookies are passive storage files, while spyware actively tracks your activities and sends reports to a web source that you may not necessarily be visiting at the time.

Ad-Aware is a program written by Lavasoft that can scan your computer hard drive for known spyware programs and remove them. There are several different versions at varying prices, but the free version is quite sufficient.

Secure Transactions

security

When you enter personal information onto a web page and click that "Submit" button, that information is transmitted across the Internet to the host computer. During that transit, however, that information is generally open for anyone to see, who cares to look. It is not unlike driving on the freeway and noticing another driver's activities (talking on the cell phone, rocking to some music, etc). Admittedly, there is some information that is particularly personal, like a credit card number or a password, which would spell bad news if it got into the wrong hands.

But there are ways to encrypt such personal information to make it more difficult to read (like tinting your car windows). Encryption, however, is not something you have to add to your computer. Any responsible website asking for personal information to be submitted will have a secure encryption certificate to protect you. You can recognize when you are at such a web site in two ways.

First, the web address will be different. Instead of "http://", a secure website will read "https://". Your web browser will also display a little padlock icon across the bottom to signify that you are residing at a secured web site. Watch for these signs before you enter personal information at any web site.

secure web page icon

Privacy Policies

privacy policies

Federal law requires business to disclose their policies regarding their use of your personal information. It is worth your while to review any terms of service policy posted on the website of any business with which you maintain a relationship.

In particular, look for mentions regarding whether or not a business with share your information with any "third-parties". Many businesses will allow you to "opt-in" or "opt-out" of any programs in which a business will share personal information with the intent of having a third party contact you to sell you something. Opt-in means that you must choose to allow your information to be shared, opt-out means that you have to tell the business to not share your information.

Though companies attempt to show that they are being upfront about including you in such programs, read any options on web forms carefully. They could be worded in such a way you may be signing up for something that sounded like you really didn't.

And, by the way, we at Internet Montana take your privacy seriously. We will not give out or sell our customers' information. We do not use cookies on our web site. And, our incoming and outgoing mail servers are all in one, so emails from one IMT user to another does not travel the Internet and are secure. Check out our Acceptable Use Policy for details.

Internet Savvy
Netiquette | Digital Privacy | Internet for Families | Spotting Hoaxes | Junk Email
Computer Viruses | Hackers | Reporting Crime

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Material last updated March 2009

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