Surveillance 2: It's all our own fault

How we give ourselves away

So how does your personal information escape from your custody into the outside world? Eavesdropping and outright theft get the most publicity, but they're hardly the norm. Unless you're a Mafia don, you're unlikely to be the target of a government wiretap. You're more likely to have your pocket picked than have your credit card number stolen by an online criminal. Most of the time, you give away private information on your own.

In some cases, you offer this information voluntarily. When you supply your name, address and credit card number to an e-commerce Web site, for example, you can expect that they will end up in a database. Beware of any information provider that demands detailed personal information, such as your date of birth, marital status or annual income. If you enter personal details into an online profile at Yahoo! or America Online (AOL), you typically have to take special steps to keep that information out of the hands of third parties.

Online and offline, you may also be led to give away important information under false pretences. When you register a new software package or fill out a product warranty card for a new toaster oven, you may be asked to fill out a lengthy survey, including information about your income, hobbies and favourite magazines. Those details aren't required, but trusting souls who fill them in are unwittingly feeding databases with their personal information.

Sometimes you don't even have to fill anything out to give away your details unknowingly. For example, every time you connect to a Web page, the Web server at the other end makes a note of your IP address, the browser you're using and the Web page you came from. If you let your browser store cookies, then you also send any personal information you entered on previous visits to that site.

In addition, there are the thousands of official databases maintained by government agencies -- including official records of births and deaths, marriages, divorces, property sales, business licences, legal proceedings and driving records, among other things. To the horror of privacy advocates, many of those databases are going online too, often with only half-hearted security precautions.

Take me to the Surveillance 2 ZD Net News special.

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