The Financial Post
Saturday, January 17, 1998

Beware of all e-mails, big brother is watching

by Maryanne McNellis

Even if we have little to hide, most of us believe in the concept of privacy.

But it's time to wake up and smell the silicon, there really is precious little privacy in the computer age. Virtually everything you do is tracked somehow by computer.

If you use a credit or debit card to buy your groceries "they" know which brand of cereal you favor. Ditto for gasoline, clothing or CDs. If your company has a little plastic card to let you into the garage or building "they" know what time you show up for work. Newer highways scan the licence plate on your car, so "they" know just how long it took you to get to work or if you slipped out midday.

And then there's the Internet, perhaps the least private device of the '90s.

Moderately sophisticated hackers, both in-house and out there, can access your "private" e-mail any time they please. The courts have essentially ruled that anything you type into your office computer, whether it's the next five-year plan or a love letter, belongs to your employer. So, whether your private notes are accidentally or deliberately read by your boss, it's his/hers.

Even if you are working on your home computer from the cocoon of your study, your files are hardly private. Hackers abound the minute you link into cyberspace.

And lord forbid you actually try to complete a transaction, such as buy something using a credit card or complete a trade on your portfolio. Even though the fractured Internet industry has been frantically trying to come up with a way to ensure privacy, it's not there yet. Online privacy is mostly a fragile illusion.

The law is scrambling to catch up with the reality of cyberspace. Meanwhile, the Wall Street Journal reported a chilling case this week, one that should give pause to anyone who blissfully believes in the anonymity of cyberspace.

A sailor is about to be dismissed from the U.S. Navy, after 17 years of apparently exemplary service, for Internet use. The actual message that may end his career is quite harmless. He was not attempting to lure underage juveniles into sexual situations nor do anything equally outrageous.

This senior petty officer was out at sea when he used America Online to send an electronic message to a fellow seaman's wife about arrangements for a Christmas party for his shipmates and their families.

The wife didn't recognize the electronic identifier "BOYSRCH". She then called up the sender's profile and discovered that it was owned by someone named "Tim" who had "gay" listed as his marital status. She forwarded this info to navy officials who contacted AOL. Bingo, they had the name of the owner of the account. The man was charged with "sodomy and indecent acts", apparently based on the fact that he owned the account. Unless someone intervenes soon, his career is over.

Laying aside the broader issue of whether the navy has any business passing judgment on sexual orientation, this case clearly illustrates how illusory privacy is on the Internet. Many people use the Internet to be someone they aren't in the boring old real world. A teenage girl can be a tough marine; a bald 60-year-old man can be a Cindy Crawford lookalike; and anyone can be younger/older and the heartthrob of your dreams (of either sex).

This, by the way, is the navy guy's defence. He says he created this online persona to "have fun and talk to people". In line with the U.S. military's "don't ask, don't tell" philosophy about homosexuality, he's not saying whether or not he's gay.

Chatting with someone half way around the globe is fun. But it's not private. Bear that in mind next time you're in the electronic land of pretend.

Copyright © 1998 by The Financial Post. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with permission.