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JOMC 710:
Final Project

The UUU of the WWW

HOME | UUU OF THE WWW | BEST SITES

The Unexpected, Unintended and Uninvited Consequences
of Participating in the World Wide Web

JOMC 710, EOTO Project
03/23/2007

I. The UUU of the WWW: The Unexpected, Unintended and Uninvited Consequences of Participating in the World Wide Web

The Internet offers unprecedented opportunities for connecting with friends and families. Yet, many popular online communication sources may unintentionally expose users to unexpected, unintended and uninvited losses of privacy.

Internet users should exercise care and caution to avoid cyber crime and Internet fraud, but it does not take an evil-minded hacker to learn all sorts of private information about you. All it takes is you.

Few of us would willingly share our most personal information with complete strangers, yet for millions of Internet users participating in online forums and social network sites that is exactly what’s happening. The consequences range from innocent—someone learns something about someone else and promptly dismisses it, to evil—a stalker or identity thief takes advantage of the information.

Seemingly innocuous sites such as MySpace.com, Classmates.com and even the UNC Alumni database all provide a rich resource of personal information—all of it provided willingly by well-meaning netizens.

As UNC alumni John and Elizabeth Edwards announced their challenge of treating her breast cancer and continuing with his presidential campaign, I visited the UNC alumni database (an apparent software glitch allows me to search alumni information without being a paying alumni association member) and found Elizabeth Edwards' listing. Now I can send a "get well" card to her listed home address in Chapel Hill.

Classmates.com registrants can, for a limited time, see members' work, school and hobby histories without paying. I discovered that one of our classmates, employed at a newspaper in our state's largest city, is a self-described "aggressive and focused" "liberal" who drives a sports car and considers "fresh powder and a Swiss chalet" her dream vacation (but we probably already knew all that!).

MySpace.com may offer the most and best free information about anyone who chooses to post a profile there. As you may recall, I discovered the identity of my son's "anonymous" sperm donor through leads there that led me to information about his partner, infant daughter and his whole family (including images of his apartment and his vacations).

Many of us can be found and probed through Web sites and blogs created for our classes. With my own unique name, one can easily deduce my life story, the elements that comprise who I am, where I've worked and what I've done.

In most cases, these voluntary, if rather nave, privacy breaches never cause us harm or discomfort. Nevertheless since that potential exists, I fear more Internet regulation coming. Instead of more laws, before actively engaging in Internet activities, persons need to carefully consider such issues as the posting of personal information and consider who can access Web sites.

II. Five Biggest Fears About the UUU on the WWW…

1. Misuse/Abuse of information
From obvious abuse of information issues, such as stalking and identity theft, to more subtle misuses such as discrimination in housing, health and employment opportunities, Web participants should familiarize themselves with the advantages and drawbacks of sharing personal information on the Internet.
2. Government regulation/censorship
Abuses of personal information on the Internet, both real and perceived, may lead to increased efforts on the part of lawmakers to regulate the Internet potentially threatening the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.
3. Self-censorship
Fear of information misuse can lead to self-censorship that may stymie creative expression or important thought that would benefit society.
4. Cost barriers to information protection
With or without overt government intervention, private entrepreneurs may exploit fears of losing privacy over the Internet by developing methods to obscure personal information thus creating privacy protections for those persons able to afford it and creating yet another so-called digital divide.
5. Inability to conduct successful research
Lack of information on the Internet may lead to thwarted genealogical research and reconnecting with lost friends and family. The problem of differentiating the honorable from the sinister remains (certainly, one person’s innocent curiosity may be someone else’s threatening stalker).
III. Six Web Resources:
1. Title: Electronic Privacy Information Center Social Networking Privacy
Address: http://www.epic.org/privacy/socialnet/default.html
Source: Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), Established in 1994, this public interest research center researches and publishes information about privacy, free speech, open government and other civil liberties topics.
Brief Description: The referenced page provides background, news and resources concerning privacy issues about online social networking sites. EPIC also offers a page dedicated to privacy topics at http://www.epic.org/privacy and an online guide to privacy resources here: http://www.epic.org/privacy/privacy_resources_faq.html. In addition, the EPIC homepage, http://www.epic.org, features a wealth of current information about cyber privacy news and issues.
2. Title: The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF): Privacy
Address: http://www.eff.org/Privacy/
Source: The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF): "Defending Freedom in the Digital World," is a donor-funded nonprofit confronting cutting-edge issues defending free speech, privacy, innovation, and consumer rights.
Brief Description: This page discusses privacy issues related to new and emerging technologies and provides links to specific topics of concern including: government search and surveillance powers, data mining and dataveillance, data collection and retention, anonymity online and privacy-intrusive technologies. Of particular interest is this EFF page about America Online's breach of users' privacy through releasing its Web search queries with personally identifying information: http://www.eff.org/Privacy/AOL. The EFF also offers a useful "Bloggers' FAQ on Privacy" at http://www.eff.org/bloggers/lg/faq-privacy.php.
3. Title: National Cyber Security Alliance Reports/Cyber Security Library
Address: http://staysafeonline.org/features/ncsalibrary.html
Source: National Cyber Security Alliance (NCSA), a public-private partnership not-for-profit 501(c)(3) organization, provided cyber security awareness, education, tools and resources.
Brief Description: This part of the site offers enlightening reports--including consumer opinions and information about online security threats. Its Social Networking Report (http://staysafeonline.org/features/SocialNetworkingReport.ppt) illuminates the threats social networking sites pose to adult users in terms of cyber crime, identity theft and loss of privacy. NCSA also offers its "Top Eight Cyber Security Tips" at http://staysafeonline.org/practices/index.html.
4. Title: A privacy paradox: Social networking in the United States, Susan B. Barnes, 9/06
Address: http://www.firstmonday.org/issues/issue11_9/barnes/index.html
Source: FirstMonday, launched in 1995 in Denmark, provides an Internet-only, peer-reviewed journal about the Internet now hosted by the University of Illinois at Chicago and its library.
Brief Description: While focusing on teens, this well-researched and meticulously annotated paper discusses private versus public space and privacy issues in social networking. It also examines suggestions and solutions to help resolve the privacy paradox. The author is a professor at the Rochester Institute of Technology. The FirstMonday site also offers several other Internet privacy issue papers and surveys.
5. Title: Social network users have ruined their privacy, forever, Steve Kerrison, 12/26/06
Address: http://www.hexus.net/content/item.php?item=7499
Source: HEXUS.net is a UK-based commercial online IT resource providing current technology news and reviews by technically adept journalists reaching more than a million unique visitors each month, who read more than 10 million pages of content.
Brief Description: This article offers a good overview of the often self-made privacy problems for social network participants, noting the existence of archival potentials from search engines and The Internet Archive's Wayback Machine (http://www.archive.org/web/web.php).
6. Title: Link by Link; Lest We Regret Our Digital Breadcrumbs, Tom Zeller, 6/12/06
Address: http://snipurl.com/1dtgb (this is the "print view" version)
Source: The New York Times
Brief Description: This article discusses the concept of "digital breadcrumbs," our data droppings around the Internet that leave a trail back to us. The article also references a good additional source: technology journalist John Battelle (http://www.battellemedia.com), who is quoted in the article stating, "We are living online, but have yet to fully realize the implications of doing so. One of those implications is that our tracks through the digital sand are eternal." The New York Times offers ongoing excellent coverage of new technologies and related issues, including its famous story about American Online's privacy breach (noted above in #2; the EFF entry): http://www.nytimes.com/2006/08/09/technology/09aol.html?ex=1174795200&en=613d15855f133828&ei=5070
IV. Recommendations
1. Increase Awareness
Participants in World Wide Web sites should fully understand the realities of posting personal information—both the potential positive aspects and negative consequences. In my research of this topic, public opinion surveys indicated that awareness of misuse of information, beyond
2. Enforce Existing Privacy Laws
Instead of creating new laws for what amounts to an abdication of personal responsibility, lawmakers and law officers should pledge to enforce existing privacy laws and work for stronger penalties for illegal abuse of personal information.
3. Private/Public Initiatives for Protecting Privacy
Organizations offering consumers online opportunities for participating in social network sites and special interest groups and forums should consider ways of encouraging privacy and assisting in its maintenance. Discreetly placed privacy policies are not enough. One suggestion I offer is the implementation of an "Are You Sure" screen prior to accepting and posting personal information. The user would enter information and encounter a warning of potential privacy concerns by willingly posting personal information, as in e-commerce in which the user enjoys an opportunity to review her/his information prior to completion of the transaction. This may also create lessened liability for site owners in the event of litigation.
4. Participate in Private Sites
While not failsafe in the Internet world, posting to protected sites reduces the chance of old archives turning up. Witness postings on our Blackboard forums, unable to be retrieved outside of our class (and JOMC/DE officials), and those on our previous class blogs, viewable to a global audience.
5. Be Judicious in Revealing Information
My most important recommendation for protecting privacy requires Internet users to act judiciously in determining what personal information they want accessible to the world. The time to realize that your information is too available is before you post it to the Internet. The WWW is a double-edged sword. Instant access to seemingly infinite information is priceless, yet infinite access to your personal information may prove costly.

Rebekah Radisch 2007 radisch @ email.unc.edu