Welcome to privacy in the new millennium, where surfers are caught in a tug-of-war with Web sites over who owns their personal data and what can be done with it. In the last year and a half, e-commerce has exploded, doubling in volume each year. As the Net gradually becomes the medium increasingly used to get news, buy groceries, rent movies, and buy books and CDs, what little personal privacy users once had may soon disappear.
In some cases, we have only ourselves to blame. Millions of people voluntarily give out personal information to Web sites in exchange for free goods and services. These days, you can get e-mail accounts, Web hosting services and Internet access without ever cracking open your wallet. But to take advantage of such offers you must surrender bits and pieces of your identity, from your name and e-mail address to your buying and reading habits. Businesses then market this information to advertisers, or in some cases, to anyone else who may want it.
At the same time, it's increasingly difficult to trust any site to keep your personal information safe from intruders. Lax security at many Web vendors has made the Internet a hacker's paradise. In the past six months, dozens of major Web sites have suffered theft of credit card information and acts of vandalism such as last February's spate of denial-of-service attacks. As PC World has discovered, even the biggest e-commerce sites can fall prey to crackers - hackers who attack with criminal intent.
Sure, you can try to protect yourself by giving out false information or using services that cloak your identity and IP address as you surf, post to newsgroups, and send e-mail (see "Private eyes" above). But as soon as you hand over your credit card to pay for a book or a vacation, your anonymity is gone.
In fact, the biggest threat to your privacy today isn't crackers, stalkers, or data brokers. It's the legitimate online businesses - such as advertising networks, retailers, and others - that are creating detailed profiles of who you are and what you do when you are on the Web.