By Ara C. Trembly

Privacy is certainly an issue thats grabbing a lot of headlines these days, yet few of us, I think, realize how ridiculous a concept this is in the age of the Internet.

Its not that anyone is actually trying to convince us that mail on the Internet is totally secure. Rather, it seems we are blissfully unaware of how easy it is for anyone with some gumption–or a complete lack of morals–to see our most intimate–or inanee-correspondence.

Yes, Im talking about e-mail and instant messaging and chat room chatter and just about anything else you type or speak into your computer when youre online.

In the early days of the World Wide Web, people used to talk about how the Web might do away with commercial publishing altogether, because individuals could “publish” their thoughts via the Internet. While Im happy to say that commercial publishing is alive and well, those people had a point. Anything you send out onto the information highway can be spotted by other drivers or even bystanders, who may also go by the name of “hacker”–or “systems administrator.”

Do you really want your companys IT department to read that e-mail you wrote to your husband about the boss being a “butthead?” Are you really OK with having some stranger (in fact, many strangers) in a chat room know about your “boom-boom night in Vegas?” More importantly, do you really want to expose your company or agencys precious information to the possible scrutiny of competitors, data thieves and hackers?

If you trust that your electronic communications are private, you might just as well walk down the streets of your hometown naked. In fact, thats a good analogy for what happens when we send messages out from home or corporate computer systems.

I know this seems like one of those bad dreams, but picture yourself standing on the main drag of your home city and suddenly shedding your clothing (Ill give you a break and well also say its sunny and 80 degrees outside.). As you cavort sans-vestments down the public thoroughfare, youll certainly draw some attention.

Your banker, for example, could get an entirely new view of your “assets.” The UPS person may be pleasantly or unpleasantly surprised by your “package.” The butcher could begin ruminating about “flank” steaks or “rump” roast.

People might stop and stare in amazement; maybe some would cast admiring glances; others might laugh uncontrollably. It seems fair to say, however, that unless exhibitionism is your thing, the experience would leave your face a bit red, and perhaps other parts of your anatomy as well.

Is any of the content of your e-mails, instant messages or chat contributions embarrassing on that level? Only you know, but chances are your online business correspondence contains plenty of information that competitors, information brokers, hackers and other hostile parties would love to have. And getting that information is often not a problem.

An online privacy watchdog site, www.privacyresources.org, puts the situation well: “Who wants to know what youre saying? It might be a nosey coworker, your employer, your ISP, a competitor, spouse or legal team. Regardless of who wants to, it is remarkably easy for someone else to read what you write.”

The fact is that most e-mail you send may go through several servers at far-flung sites before it gets to you. Its a simple matter for anyone with access to such servers to pull up your personal correspondence.

Surely, you say, they dont keep all that stuff on their servers; it must get deleted at some point. That may or may not be so, but its interesting to note that government agencies like the CIA actually can recover e-mails and other files that have been erased multiple times from hard disks and other media. And the bad news is that the bad guys often have the same (or better) technology savvy as the government agencies.

So, an e-mail you sent years ago may resurface, and suddenly youre responsible for an information leak that might hurt your agencys chance for a big account or put your company in violation of the new federal privacy regulations.

What can you do? It may surprise you to hear from me that technology is not the complete answer. Yes, there are e-mail filtering services that can help prevent you and/or your employees from sending out critical information via e-mail or IM, and I certainly recommend that you look into these.

The bottom line, though, is that all of us need to stop being so blas? about the electronic messages we send. Each time you send an e-mail, ask yourself: “Could this information potentially harm my agency/company or my clients?” If theres any doubt, snail mail or overnight delivery services may be a wiser choice.

“Getting naked” may be just fine on certain celebrated beaches in Brazil, but in cyberspace, its an invitation to have your pocketsassuming you have anypicked.


Reproduced from National Underwriter Life & Health/Financial Services Edition, March 12, 2004. Copyright 2004 by The National Underwriter Company in the serial publication. All rights reserved.Copyright in this article as an independent work may be held by the author.