Two Figures Reclining In a Landscape by Henri Matisse

Cybersecrets: How Safe Are Yours?

Debra Littlejohn Shinder

We all need someone to talk to, someone with whom we can share the parts of ourselves we usually keep hidden from the world. To whom -- or maybe today we should ask, to what -- do you turn when you have secrets to confide?

Our mobile society separates us from our relatives and discourages long term friendships, and modern-day paranoia leaves us unsure of those with whom we work and play, sometimes even those we love. Yet we desparately want someone or something in which we can place our trust. We may seek sanctuary in the confessional booth or on the analyst's couch, or in the throes of information overlaod, we may be led to question both religion and science. But we keep looking for a confidant to take the place of the priests and the psychiatrists, the family members and friends.

Where can we find an outlet for our most private thoughts and feelings? For more and more of us, the answer is becoming: our computers. Technology has advanced to the point where some folks are more comfortable interacting with the machine than with other human beings. We feel safer and more in control at the keyboard than in a crowd.

And with the advent of the Internet, the computer has become a gateway to a world full of faceless friends with whom we share a peculiar bond of both intimacy and anonymity. It's an alluring combination that may seduce us into revealing our darkest desires, our deepest fears, our unfulfilled fantasies, pouring out our souls in a way we would never think of doing to non-virtual strangers out in the "real world."

But just how safe are our cybersecrets? Is it really wise to send confidential information over the net, or even just to store it on your hard drive? The short answer to those questions is "probably not."

Most of the people using the internet are just like you and me: respectable, responsible, and trustworthy. So are most of the people we encounter in grocery stores, public parks, and on the street -- but few of us would open up and reveal intimate information about ourselves to the latter only a few hours or days after meeting them. On the net, instant intimacy seems to be the norm.

"Cyber affairs" are a topic of popular controversy among netizens. Some think it's a harmless diversion to indulge in extramarital fantasies via computer -- but how understanding will your spouse be if one of your cyberadmirers decides to get serious, use the easily accessible net resources to look up your physical address and come pay you a visit? Cyberstalkings, provoked or not, are becoming more prevalent all the time. Dallas newspapers recently reported the stalking of a prominent local family that originated in Internet communications.

It's not just romantic liaisons that can get you in trouble, and you don't have to be high-profile to fall victim to virtual dangers. In mailing list discussion groups, people write of the most personal details of their lives for widespread distribution. If the list has a core group of regular contributors with whom we feel comfortable, we may forget that there are also "lurkers" subscribed, about whom we know nothing. They, too, are reading those posts. Never post anything to a list or newsgroup that you wouldn't want to get back to your family, your employer, or your next door neighbor. Any or all of them might be on the list without your knowledge (perhaps using an e-mail rerouter to disguise their account name). Or your post might be mentioned to them by someone else on the list.

What about private messages between people who've corresponded for a long time? You might assume it's safe to send your secrets to those you know well, but that would be a dangerous assumption. Regardless of how much you trust the recipients (and this includes electronic correspondence with your own family members and lifelong friends), there is no guarantee that your words will be seen by their eyes only. Mail files can be hacked by knowledgable computer users, or even intercepted accidentally by others. PC World Magazine in the February 1997 issue warned readers that "nothing's private in chat rooms and newsgroups" and that "most electronic mail on the Internet is about as private as a postcard."

The tiniest typographical error can cause embarrassment, or even disaster. One woman I know was part of a group of women who were having a spirited discussion about very personal matters and in the midst of it, added a new member. However, they got one letter wrong in her e-mail address. Their posts ended up going to a man none of them knew -- but who suddenly knew far too much about all of them.

If you get your e-mail through a company account, courts have held that the employer has the right to read it under current law. (There has been legislation proposed to Congress that would bar employers from their employees' e-mail accounts without express permission or without "good cause," but it has been pending for over two years). If you use a university account, the network administrators can access all of your files. Your local service provider can do the same, and commercial services such as AOL are the targets of numerous hackers and crackers (the latter specialize in "cracking" passwords).

If someone steals an envelope from your mailbox and opens it, he/she is subject to federal penalties. Law prohibits unauthorized wiretapping of your voice line. But electronic communications fail into a grey area, and the legals issues are still being debated. For now, it's best to assume that privacy on the net does not exist.

Even keeping your secret writings stored on your own computer can be dangerous. My husband learned that lesson the hard way when his ex, after their breakup, printed and sent copies of pages from his personal journal files to his employer and the local newspapers in an attempt to make trouble for him. Although a computerized version of "dear diary" may be more secure than the old-fashioned handwritten type, it's also much easier for an unscrupulous person to edit and change, and can be more easily and quickly copied without disturbing the original.

"Be careful who you talk to" has always been sound advice. Being careful about what we write makes just as much sense. Whether posted for posterity on the net or saved to disk, our words can come back to haunt us. At least the clergyman and the doctor are bound by professional ethics that require them to keep your secrets. Your Pentium will spill its guts to anyone who enters the right key combination.

I heard about one woman who had to move to a Safehouse after her abusive husband cracked her login code, read her e-mail, and discovered she'd confided her marital problems to cyberfriends. Attorneys now routinely advise their clients who are involved in litigation or under criminal investigation not to discuss the cases in e-mail. Two physicians on the east coast recently had their computers seized and private e-mail discussions about a patient used against them in a malpractice suit.

We risk more than financial ruin by being too free with personal information in electronic forums. We need to be as safety-conscious online as we are when we walk through an unfamiliar neighborhood at night. The woman who thoughtlessly broadcasts to a mailing list that her husband is out of town and she's all alone -- especially when she has previously revealed her full name and locale -- might find herself with an unwelcome visitor.

What can you do to protect yourself from the consequences of having your cybersecrets exposed? Encryption software encodes your messages, making them unreadable to the casual snoop. This can help, but for everyday communications is probably more trouble than it's worth. Maybe the best protection is the awareness that we all live in goldfish bowls these days. It's one of the prices we pay for the many benefits we derive from modern technology.

Mom's early warnings to "never talk to strangers" are hardly feasible in our brave new cyberworld. But we must strike a balance between paranoia and reckless abandon. If something really needs to be confidential, don't confide it to your computer. Perhaps we should also consider the well-worn advice to live our lives as if everything we do and say might be on the front page of the newspaper.

The fewer secrets you have, and the fewer of those you share, the less you have to worry about.

About Debra Littlejohn Shinder.

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