Monday, March 17, 1997

Opinion: Internet explained

Published in the Mountainview

Much of my time lately has been taken up discussing the Internet, commerce, privacy, arid the future of electronic communication. I have decided to write a column on it, to share with others my point of view, and to elicit comments from readers. It is in a question-and-answer format. Questions are those posed to me or to the public in general. The answers are mine.

Q. How safe is sending my credit card number over the Internet?
A. As safe as handing your credit card to a waiter in a restaurant. Safer, actually: it is very difficult to capture credit card information, even when transmitted as clear text (not encoded), over the Internet. For a variety of technical reasons which I can explain at length elsewhere, it is easier for a waiter to run off extra imprints of your credit card at a restaurant than it is for someone to watch your computer at the precise time you transmit your credit card number.

Q. Okay, but I still don't want to do my banking electronically. What can you tell me about that?
A. I can't make you do anything you don't want to do. However, you should realize that electronic banking will become widespread within the next three years. That means you will be doing it then, if only because your bank will charge you money for other services, including ATMs and teller services. (This is already happening in many banking markets around the country.) If nobody uses these systems of electronic finance now, while they are still finding out where the flaws are, nobody will ever find the flaws. Then, when we're all using it, the system will be weaker. The more people who do this sort of thing now, the better. We'll find the problems faster, find solutions faster, and make everything safer.

Q. What about privacy? Can someone find my home address or phone number on the Internet?
A. That information is public information, and has always been available to anyone who asks for it at phone company's Directory Assistance services, or at local, state, and federal records offices. It is easier and faster to find that information now on the Internet, but two caveats apply. First, that information is likely to be inaccurate and out of date. Second, someone must still go looking for it.

Q. What about my Email address? Will people be able to find me?
A. Yes. However, you should know that I actively seek out and register myself with Internet directories, search engines, and registries at every opportunity. I still receive only about one "junk" Email message a month. I receive other "unsolicited" Email messages, but they are like the one today, in which a woman from an ad agency north of Boston offered to purchase one of my photographs. She found my Email address while doing a web search for photographers in Vermont. That sort of unsolicited message is fine with me!

Q. I'm still concerned about controlling access to my name, address, phone number, and other vital information. How should I go about that, in the age of the Internet?
A. The short answer is, "Give up." That information, including your Social Security Number, is pretty much generally available to any member of the public who cares to look for it. This includes the "top-secret password" maiden name of your mother, which is easily findable from your birth certificate and your parents' marriage license. (If there is one, it's in the clerk's office of the state in which they were married; if there isn't one, her maiden name is on your birth certificate.) However, most Internet directory services recognize that people perceive a threat to their privacy from being listed in such databases, and will remove any individual who requests it. There is not yet a service which will request that you be removed from all online databases. I reiterate that, as one of the most easily found people on the web, I have yet to encounter serious privacy problems as a result of the Internet.