skinner consulting

professional | programming | privacy | jobs | personal | public service | what's new | faq | links | contact
You are here: Home > Professional > Privacy

Privacy (yours; here and elsewhere)

The real danger is the gradual erosion of individual liberties through the automation, integration, and interconnection of many small, separate record-keeping systems, each of which alone may seem innocuous, even benevolent, and wholly justifiable.

     U.S. Privacy Protection Study Commission, 1977

Twenty-five years on, it's still every bit as true.

The good news

Skinner Consulting does not collect information from your browser, nor do we place cookies on your computer, nor do we read information from cookies that others may have placed. Unless you send us an E-Mail or otherwise contact us, we know nothing at all about you; and even if you do contact us, we know nothing more than what you choose to tell us.
We will not give, lend, sell or trade information about you to other companies.
We will not send you any junk mail in any medium, unless you specifically ask to be kept informed.

The bad news

You would probably be shocked to discover how unusual this policy is. Most websites do gather information about you, because most companies sell or trade this information. This is how you can receive junk e-mail from places you have never knowingly visited: some other website has captured your name, address and God knows what all else from your browser, and sold it to them.

Some people would say that this is proof of the ineffable perfection of Capitalism, that we must learn to love the loss of our privacy as we love cold-calling insurance salesmen. We say: we hate them both. We say:

Defend yourself

Start by disabling the "Auto-Completion" fill-in-the-blanks-for-you feature many browsers now offer. This is like putting the house key on top of the doormat: your browser gives this information to any site that asks for it, even if you see no text-entry fields on screen.

Then change your browser's cookies settings. Accept only cookies that are sent back only to the originating site, and even then the browser should ask your permission first. If this sounds like too much bother, then consider switching to Netscape Communicator: it lets you define multiple "personalities" with different settings. I created a personality named "Naïv" for online banking and shopping, which accepts cookies without asking me. This personality only ever goes to four websites, which I know and trust. For all other surfing, I use a second personality named "Paranoid" which disables Javascript, pop-up windows and background effects, and rejects most cookies out of hand.

Next, get a second e-mail account from one of the free (meaning: paid for by advertising that is sent with your e-mail message) services like Yahoo or Hotmail or any one of a dozen others. Enter this mail address in your browser's settings panel. This prevents the bad guys from learning your "real" e-mail address; and if the new address is captured by spammers you can just cancel it and get another. Incidentally: be aware that Hotmail is run by Microsoft, in recent years one of the worst offenders at gathering and selling on information about you. I don't know that the others are any better, so here too think twice about what you tell them.

The rest is just common sense. If a stranger stopped you in the street and asked for your credit card number, would you give it to them? Of course not. Then why give this or other valuable information to a website that you've never seen before, to a company that you hadn't heard of two minutes ago? How do you know the company even exists? I call myself "John Skinner", but is that my real name? I could be a fifteen-year-old, hacking for the Russian mafia. The Germans have a saying: No-one has ever died of being cautious. If the company is honest, you'll get a second chance to talk to them; if they aren't, then you'd be a fool to talk to them. [Want to know who owns a website? click here for tips.]

Some websites require you to fill out questionnaires in order to get the goodies. Consider this: If a security guard with a clipboard stood at the door to WalMart and refused to let you in unless you gave him your address and telephone number, would you do so? Or would you go across the street to KMart? I know what I would do! If you think you might wish to business with the company, then write "You'll find out when and if I buy your product" into every field. This makes it clear that you are cautious, not malicious, and the kind of company you wish to do business with will respect that. (If they require your age or birthdate, make yourself old rather than young: many sites will close their doors to people under 18. I always give April 1, 1901 as my birthdate, on websites that have no need to know my real birthdate.)

Obviously there are exceptions. If you've just ordered a book, then you'd better give them your real address.

Warning: Do not give them someone else's information in place of your own! That is illegal, and can be severely punished. The point is to protect your legal rights, not to hurt other people. Be sure that the information you invent is just invention. Try dialling that invented phone number, to make sure it doesn't ring.

Related websites

Here are a few sites concerned with privacy and data protection, and how these apply to your civil rights. The descriptions are quoted from the sites themselves.

Electronic Freedom Foundation (EFF)
The Electronic Frontier Foundation is the leading civil liberties organization working to protect rights in the digital world. Founded in 1990, EFF actively encourages and challenges industry and government to support free expression and privacy online.
Privacy Rights Clearinghouse
The Privacy Rights Clearinghouse is a nonprofit consumer information and advocacy program. It offers consumers a unique opportunity to learn how to protect their personal privacy. The PRC is a project of the Utility Consumers' Action Network (UCAN), a San Diego-based nonprofit membership organization which advocates for consumers' interests vis-a-vis telecommunications, energy, and the Internet.
Privacy International
Privacy International (PI) is a human rights group formed in 1990 as a watchdog on surveillance by governments and corporations. PI is based in London, England, and has an office in Washington, D.C. PI has conducted campaigns throughout the world on issues ranging from wiretapping and national security, to ID cards, video surveillance, data matching, police information systems, medical privacy, and freedom of information and expression.
Copyright © John Skinner, 2002. All rights reserved.
Last updated 2002.12.09