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Privacy of Online Personal Information

The Declaration of Independence asserts Americans have certain unalienable rights, among them life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Should privacy be included in this list? If you think so, 79% of Americans agree with you, according to a poll conducted in 1990. You may also be amongst the 68% of Americans who, in a 1992 poll, felt computers were an actual threat to their personal privacy.

What can you do to protect the privacy of your personal information online? Current federal legislation safeguards only certain categories of information. For example, the Privacy Act of 1974 gives you the right to be informed, to inspect, and to challenge personal information collected by governmental agencies. The Video Privacy Protection Act allows divulgence of movie titles you've rented only if you've been permitted to prohibit such publication. An amendment to this law passed in January 2013: 1) allows the required written consent to be obtained via electronic means using the Internet, 2) requires such consent be in a form distinct and separate from any form setting forth other legal or financial obligations of the consumer; 3) allows such consent to be given in advance for a set period of time, not to exceed two years or until consent is withdrawn by the consumer, whichever is sooner; and 4) requires the service provider to provide an opportunity for the consumer to withdraw such consent on a case-by-case basis or to withdraw from ongoing disclosures, at the consumer's election.

The Driver's Privacy Protection Act, which became effective September 1997, prohibits state motor vehicle departments from releasing personal information without providing an opportunity for you to opt out of disclosure. The U.S. Supreme Court is set to rule on a case, Maracich v. Spears, which involves the litigation exception under the DPPA, and whether the use of personal information by lawyers to find clients for litigation actually falls under the litigation exception.

Some state legislation also safeguards specific information. For example, in New York, you can sue someone who uses your photograph in an advertisement without your consent. In California, the Online Privacy Protection Act requires operators of commercial web sites or online services that collect personal information on California residents through a web site to conspicuously post a privacy policy on the site and to comply with its policy. The privacy policy must, among other things, identify the categories of personally identifiable information collected about site visitors and the categories of third parties with whom the operator may share the information.

Most federal, state, and local legislation, however, doesn't prohibit independent third parties from gathering and disseminating your personal information to the millions on the net.

Certain Supreme Court rulings might help you prevent widespread online access to your permanent record. In landmark decisions, the Justices have held that the Bill of Rights creates an inherent zone of privacy around rights not specifically enumerated. The Ninth Amendment, which provides that "the enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people," aids an assertion of privacy rights in personal information. In addition, the Court has ruled that the Constitution protects information you seek to preserve as private, even in an area accessible to the public. Based upon these rulings, you may be able to sue someone for invasion of privacy for releasing your personal information to the public via the net.

If you send someone a letter, in print or electronic form, you should know that you are the copyright owner of that letter, not the recipient. If someone copies, forwards, or publishes your letter, without your consent, you could sue him for copyright infringement.

Take practical measures to protect your privacy. Get an unlisted phone number. Online search services may list your home address and telephone number, but they only publish listed numbers. Or, write to each search service and request they delete your personal information. Use anonymous remailers to send email or postings to Usenet groups. Use a different screen name from your actual name; America Online, for example, supplies this feature. Use encryption methods such as PGP (Pretty Good Privacy) to send personal email.

Don't give out personal information on your home page. If an online service requires registration, either opt out, supply the minimal amount of information, or use an alias. The use of an alias also allows you to track to whom this service sold your name. If an online content provider permits, tell them you don't wish to receive mailings from them or any third party.

Finally, speak up. In 1990, Lotus Development Corporation and Equifax terminated a product which would have contained personal information after 30,000 people objected. The power to protect privacy lies in all our hands, keyboards, and voices.

Courtesy of Marie D'Amico of NetGuide Magazine.

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