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In the age of the Internet, it is not always easy to be left alone or to keep your business private.  What's at stake in the online world is ensuring that the information you want to keep private is kept that way. 

Every Breath You Take, Every Move You Make

What would a boss say if she found out an employee was looking for another job?  What would an insurance company think if it knew a customer looked up information on cancer?  Whether you surf the Web, check your email or share hundreds of copyrighted mp3s, it is possible your Internet Service Provider or even your employer can keep track of what you do online. 

Web surfing logs can be kept if law enforcement officials want them.  If you surf the Web at work, your boss can access that information. There is a need to balance the right to ensure that data are available to help the police solve crimes with the right to protect someone's privacy.

Groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation are encouraging Internet Service Providers to "dump the data" and keep only the information they need.  The Foundation argues that limiting data collection will help protect the privacy of people and allow Internet Service Providers to free up staff resources to perform network upgrades and technical support instead of investigating voluminous logs for claims of copyright infringement. 

The Music Industry Sues for Internet Records and Logs

In 2002, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), the group representing major music companies, sued Verizon Internet Services, demanding they turn over the identity of subscribers the RIAA alleged were violating copyright law by sharing copyrighted music files over peer-to-peer file sharing services like KaZaA, Morpheus and Grokster.    

Verizon fought the suit on the grounds that filing a subpoena with a court clerk against the suspected copyright infringers, without filing an actual lawsuit, was not enough for the company to give up subscriber information to the RIAA. 

Consumers Union (and 43 other consumer and privacy groups) signed an amicus brief (PDF) filed by the Electronic Frontier Foundation which supported Verizon's legal position and detailed the privacy interests of Internet consumers.

The U.S. Court of Appeals, D.C. Circuit, upheld Verizon's position that the RIAA does not have the authority under U.S. law to simply seek court clerk-issued subpoenas to obtain the names of suspected file swappers.

Since the Court ruling, however, some Internet Service Providers, including those tied to media conglomerates who also own copyrights, have been willing to divulge information about suspected file swappers without putting up any fight.  In addition, recording companies have filed thousands of John Doe suits, requesting judges, not court clerks, to issue the subpoenas as a way around the Verizon decision.

How to Keep It Private

Consumers do not have to divulge personal information to get access to the best of the Internet.  Companies need to be upfront about what information they want, and what they will do with it when they get it. lists the steps you should take to "Minimize Online Risks" in their September 2005 Protect Yourself Online series of articles.  These tips, along with the comprehensive policy-oriented privacy guide from the Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT) will help consumers keep their information private on the Internet.   Another great resource from Consumers Union is Consumer Reports WebWatch which has a series of privacy consumer tips to keep your information safe and secure.

The Federal Trade Commission, along with other government agencies, created, a comprehensive website that helps consumers understand the risks associated with certain online activities, how to protect yourself, and how to file a complaint.

CDT has also partnered with other consumer and privacy groups on another consumer-friendly privacy Web site that offers a list of the top 10 things you can do to protect your privacy on the Internet.

The Electronic Privacy Information Center serves as an information clearinghouse on privacy and technology.  The American Civil Liberties Union focuses on privacy, and protecting the civil liberties of individuals, while the Electronic Frontier Foundation addresses a wide range of high-tech privacy issues, including such matters as cryptography and surveillance.

Don't Get Caught in the Net of a Phisher Scam

Phishing is a scam that uses spam email or pop-up windows to deceive people into divulging bank account information, credit card numbers, Social Security numbers, passwords or other private and personal information.  Typically, these emails and Web sites pretend to be from trusted financial institutions. 

Current laws may not be enough protection against phishers who claim to be companies or people they are not.  Phishers might not be guilty of a crime until they actually receive private information. By then it could be too late. A proposal from Senator Patrick Leahy, called the Anti-Phishing Act of 2005, would solve that problem and make phishers liable before they reel in a victim. has an in-depth article from Anita Ramasastry, an Associate Professor at the University of Washington School of Law, explaining how current laws might be inadequate and how Sen. Leahy's proposal might help solve the problem.  The Federal Trade Commission also explains how to avoid getting trapped by such scams.