Computer Crime Research Center


Don't be afraid to use the Web, but do proceed with caution

Date: February 18, 2004
Source: Greenville
By: Adam Gautsch

Don't let fear of cyber crime and hacking grab a hold of you. The horror stories are almost always worse than the reality. This is certainly the case with online safety and cyber crime. After reading two recent articles in The Greenville News about government Web sites posting private information (Anderson County was posting Social Security numbers, and Greenville County is posting criminal and civil court records), I had visions of people unplugging their computers, canceling their Internet accounts and running to a shack in Montana.

Put the Internet cord down. Don't do anything rash. For starters, in both cases the information was not obtained from Internet users; instead, it was posted by government agencies. Secondly, the Internet has too many great benefits and powerful tools for you to be afraid of having your personal information published.

Instead of succumbing to your fears, follow several tips when you enter personal information on Web:

- Look for the lock: The most basic tip is to always use a secure Web site when giving information you would not want the world to know. Secure servers make it very hard for hackers to steal the information you are entering. You should feel just as safe using a secure server as you do using your credit card at a store. There are two easy ways to know when you are using a secure server: 1. You will see a graphic of a closed padlock at the bottom of your Web browser. 2. Instead of "http" in front of your URL you will see "https," the "s" indicating that the browser is using a Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) protocol.

- Read privacy statements and agreements: This is an obvious tip but worth mentioning. Even if the site uses a secure server, you might be surrendering information to a site with unethical standards. That is why you need to read all privacy agreements that sites offer and double-check where your information is being sent and how it's being used. Companies make a great deal of money selling your information to the dreaded telemarketers and spammers. The more well known and reputable the site, the less likely this will happen. However, you should always read the privacy statements first.

Internet privacy standards (P3P) are on their way. P3P is a uniform set of multiple-choice questions, encompassing all the most important facets of a Web site's privacy policies. It will enhance your control over personal information by requiring that privacy policies be placed where you can see them and in an understandable form.

- Take the offensive: Even being as careful as possible on the Web, it is going to be impossible to avoid the occasional piece of spyware. Spyware is a term used to describe a program that monitors your online actions. Most of the programs are not going to be too damaging, but some can be, and none need to be on your computer.

I suggest using a spyware detection and deletion program to scan your computer and remove all unwanted and unneeded programs. I use SpyBot, and it works great for me, but there are several other comparable programs. Another often overlooked method of protecting yourself from spyware is to simply update your operating system. Whether you are using Windows, Linux, UNIX or Mac- OS, updates are essential. You can easily get updates from these companies' Web sites.

These tips will do a lot to help protect you from hackers and identity thieves. However, as The Greenville News articles showed, you do not need to own a computer to have your private information posted on the Internet for the world to see.

Stopping companies or agencies from posting private information on the Web without your consent requires a much more traditional method. The first step to stopping this from happening is to have the public informed about sites that post information. The next step is to write the business, your congressman, senator, county council person, local newspaper, friends, family, etc. Every business and government organization is controlled by the democracy of the free market, and any site that has too much negative feedback will suffer.

I hope this helps you to feel safer about the Internet. If you use the same common sense in the cyber world as you do in the real one, your information will be just as safe. Remember, the Web is not only our future, but it is our present. Online shopping, research, entertainment, communication and more are available, and you should not be afraid to explore the possibilities.
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Discussion is closed - view comments archieve
2004-05-16 02:22:52 - A little too much paranoid schizophrenia... Stanley
2004-02-25 02:09:00 - Dear Adam, I really wish people like you... maureen
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