Helen Popkin
By
msnbc.com
updated 3/10/2011 9:20:56 AM ET 2011-03-10T14:20:56

You don't need a foil hat to fear the Internet.

Between Facebook's successful push to normalize open personal information, the U.S. government's demands for Twitter records, WikiLeaks sharing government documents, and Anonymous going after those who go after WikiLeaks, anyone who reads for comprehension gets that Joseph Heller's line from "Catch 22" isn't fiction: "Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they aren't after you."

I'm talking to you, Won't-Sign-Up-for-E-ZPass Guy.

You didn't need to see that one episode of "Law & Order" to know your vehicular comings-and-goings can be tracked via that tiny device that allows you to skip the cash lane on bridges. You spend slightly more on groceries because signing up for a shopper loyalty card means turning over your name, address, phone number and birthday to a faceless corporation. You avoid public Wi-Fi and cell phone calls that exposes your network, and you sure as heck don't use Facebook.

  1. Special report: Digital privacy
    1. Why should I care about digital privacy?

      Consumer behavior shows, repeatedly, that people just don't care about privacy. But it's a human right more people should be fighting for.

    2. The big difference between 'open' and 'at risk'

      Even if you don't care about privacy, you need to know what could cost you your job, education or marriage.

    3. Don't freak out: Paranoids can go online too

      Not joining a social network will get costlier over time. But even basic steps can go a long way to protect you online.

    4. Study: Social media polarizes privacy concerns

Certainly more than a few people roll their eyes at your privacy vigilance, and the price you might pay for attempting to stay off the grid.

Unwillingness to join a social network or engage in the Internet will get costlier over time — socially, personally and professionally, as our colleague Bob Sullivan points out. Increasingly to live in the world, Internet access makes life much easier and is, in some cases, required. And yes, this includes membership on a social network, be it an online dating site, Facebook or LinkedIn.

I'm here to say that even the most basic steps can go a long way to protecting your Internet experience — not all of it, but a lot. The trick to living with the Internet is learning to leave the smallest and fewest footprints possible.

Balance your risks: "Security isn't having the strongest lock or the best anti-virus software — security is about making trade-offs to manage risk, something we do in many contexts throughout the day," reads the introduction to the Electronic Freedom Foundation's Surveillance Self Defense Guide.

"When you consider crossing the street in the middle of the block rather than at a cross-walk, you are making a security trade-off: You consider the threat of getting run over versus the trouble of walking to the corner, and assess the risk of that threat happening by looking for oncoming cars. Your bodily safety is the asset you're trying to protect."

Fortunately, potential risks on the Internet aren't as immediately harmful as a speeding bus. And there are incentives to going online, particularly avoiding that chill experienced by the "privacy-centric" crowd from friends and relatives who can't believe you won't join Facebook and comment on the latest pictures of the baby.

Know your privacy settings: If you want to take advantage of community websites, YouTube, Flickr or Facebook, take the time to acquaint yourself with both the site's privacy policy and profile settings.

Given the media attention to Facebook's ever changing privacy settings, there are many guides to show you how to lock down your account, and thus ease both your security worries and the headaches caused by friends and relatives who think you're nuts. There are those who go so far as to set up accounts under false names, and that's another risk to consider. False identities are in direct violation of Facebook's terms of service, and subject to being bounced, be it a profile you set up for your pet or a fake name used for safety on an account set up by a protester in a repressive regime.

Keep a "clean" e-mail address:  If you're worried about the potential privacy violations associated with a Facebook profile, you should definitely know the value of a "clean" e-mail address for use in public spaces on the Internet. Hotmail and Yahoo offer free, advertising-supported e-mail accounts, but free accounts don't have the best security records. Consider an Internet package that allows multiple user IDs and addresses (a.k.a. "personalities", "aliases"), suggests the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Use your "clean" e-mail address exclusively for chat rooms, mailing lists, newsgroups and the like.

Surf anonymously: Encryption is your first line of defense against abusive marketers, industrial espionage, government surveillance, identity theft, disgruntled co-workers, nosy acquaintances and system crackers. The same security protocol which encrypts your credit card information when you make a purchase on a shopping website can be used for your entire Internet experience. There are many encryption browser applications available; the Electronic Frontier Foundation offers this one for Firefox.

Consider free software and an open network programs such as Tor for completely anonymous Internet exploration. As the download website explains, Tor works by "bouncing your communications around a distributed network of relays run by volunteers all around the world. It prevents somebody watching your Internet connection from learning what sites you visit, and it prevents the sites you visit from learning your physical location."

Stay up to date on the state of security, surveillance and the Internet: There are no fewer than seven pieces of privacy-related legislation that have either been introduced in the House of Representatives, or soon will be, Bob Sullivan points out.

Websites such as the Electronic Privacy Information Center collect link to the latest headlines in privacy developments, from airport body scanners to Facebook. The Privacy Clearinghouse also offers information on the latest issues, legalities and consumer tips. The Electronic Frontier Foundation champions public interest in the digital realm, as does Dotrights program of the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California.

Keep reading - the msnbc.com special report on privacy continues:

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