A funny thing happened to me on my way to writing this book. My privacy was invaded, numerous times and in various ways. Worse, I was an involuntary participant in the destruction of other people’s privacy. Here are just a few examples:
One day last spring our home fax machine started spewing out pages of someone else’s medical history. We had long lists of symptoms, doctor’s notes, and copies of EKG printouts for some 64-year-old woman we’d never met. Turns out that a nearby heart clinic was trying to send this information to a local specialist but had our fax number instead of his. We tossed the pages and called the clinic, which told us they’d correct the problem. Two weeks later it happened again, with a different patient.
Every morning at 6 a.m. that same fax machine spewed out ads for Caribbean cruises, cheap health care plans, worthless stock offers, and so on—despite a 13-year-old Federal law banning such junk faxes. When I called the companies advertising these services to complain, they hung up on me.
Our tax accountant decided to go electronic last year. So he created a web page where each of his clients could enter their financial information. The site was secure, he assured us, because he had assigned us all a password to access it. But the passwords he chose were our Social Security numbers! He’d given no thought to what might happen to those numbers en route from his clients’ keyboards to his unencrypted site. Needless to say, we didn’t use it.
On April 15, this same accountant emailed us a copy of our tax return. Only it wasn’t our return, it was for one of his other clients, complete with her SSN, address, and taxable income—all the information we’d need to steal her identity and completely ruin her life. Lord knows who saw a copy of our return. (He is now our former tax accountant.)
My computer got infected with a tenacious piece of spyware—malicious code that secretly installed itself on my PC and generated browser pop-up ads for, among other things, spyware removal software. I tried a dozen anti-spyware packages before I found one able to nuke the nasty bugger (see Chapter 3 for tips on spyware removal).
For six months I was a magnet for telemarketing investment scams. I got calls asking me to invest $25,000 in movies, oil wells, rare coins, emu farms, you name it. When I began to interrupt the sales pitch to ask pointed questions—like who was behind these investment schemes and how they might be contacted—the callers invariably got belligerent and hung up. But I ultimately discovered how these sleazoids got my number, and got the calls to stop.
I arrived home from a business trip and discovered that my office WiFi network had been hacked. In fact, an apparently benevolent intruder had gone so far as to change the name of my network to “Wide Open—Hack Me!” without doing any other damage. Since then, I’ve fixed the problem (see Chapter 2 for tips on securing your own WiFi net).
On my way home from a privacy conference last spring, I opened my suitcase to find a calling card from the Transportation Security Administration (TSA).
The card said my bag had been opened at random and searched in accordance with new airport security rules. (A few months later my wife got an identical notice in her bag.) Good thing I’m an upright law-abiding citizen, or I might be writing this book from Guantanamo.
I won’t even go into the volume and types of spam I receive, or offers for low-interest credit cards, or the times I’ve been asked for my Social Security Number by someone who didn’t really need it. None of these problems is particularly unique or onerous. In fact, as a journalist who has covered privacy and technology for more than a decade, I’m probably better off than most.
So when my editor at O’Reilly approached me to write Computer Privacy Annoyances, I practically leapt at the chance. I realized I had a lot to say—and a lot to learn.
One thing I learned is that privacy is, well, personal. Everyone has their own definition of what’s an acceptable level of privacy and when that limit has been exceeded. My wife, for example, loves to get catalogs in the mail, so our house is littered with slick publications from The Company Store, J. Jill, L.L.Bean, Pottery Barn, Sundance, Victoria’s Secret, Williams-Sonoma, and more. Every time we order something from one of them, it seems like two new catalogs show up. She will also happily hand over her email address or apply for a store credit card if it means getting a 10 or 20 percent discount.
Not me. I loathe credit cards and hate catalogs (with the possible exception of Victoria’s Secret). If it were up to me, I’d cut up all our plastic and remove our address permanently from mailing lists. Then again, divorces can be messy—and extremely detrimental to one’s privacy—so I restrain myself.
I also learned that too much privacy can hurt you in other ways. While writing this book, I heard from an old friend from junior high school. He found me on a whim by typing my name into Google. Had I removed my traces from the Web (you’ll find out how in Chapter 3) I would never have reconnected with him.
There are other, more literal costs. If you tell your bank to stop sharing your data (see Chapter 2), you’ll get fewer offers for low-cost credit cards, so you may end up paying more in interest. If you refuse to hand over your Social Security number to a prospective landlord, she may not be able to run a credit check on you, which means someone else may get the apartment you want.
My point is that many of these things are in your control. Sometimes the law works against you or (more often) there are no restrictions on what corporations or the government can do with your data. But in many situations you can choose exactly how private you want to be. This book will show you how.