Jeffrey B. Dalin, DDS, FAGD, FICD
If you have access to a computer and a modem, you are licensed to drive on the information superhighway. If you have been a reader of my column over the years, you know by now that the Internet offers many benefits. Web sites provide a vast world of information, entertainment, and shopping at our fingertips. Electronic mail, instant messaging, and chat rooms enable us to communicate with friends, family, and strangers in ways we never dreamed of a decade ago.
But the Internet also creates many threats to our personal privacy. Unless you know the "rules of the road," your online activity may lead to significant privacy problems. When you are sitting alone at your computer sending email messages and participating in online forums, it's easy to think that your activities are private. Be aware that at any step along the way, your online messages could be intercepted and your activities could then be monitored in the vast, untamed world of cyberspace.
Any time you are online and logged into your account, you have to realize that you are only as secure as your password. Create passwords with nonsensical combinations of upper and lower case letters, numbers and symbols — for example a%87T2y. Do not use the same or variations of the same password for different applications. Change your passwords fairly often. Don't let others watch you log in. Don't print out your passwords. If you must write down or record your passwords, take steps to secure or disguise the information.
Check your browser's cookie settings. We've come a long way from the days when browsers hid their cookie activity and gave users no options. Now you may accept or reject all cookies, or you may allow only those cookies generated by the Web site you are visiting. Be aware that when you use cookie-management options, such as Ad-Aware or SpyBot, you may delete cookies for Web sites you trust. You may want to set a security level in your browser and security software for trusted Web sites, while blocking cookie activity for all others.
Assume that your online communications are not private unless you use encryption software. Most encryption programs are not user-friendly and can be inconvenient to use. If you do not use encryption, at least take the following precautions: Do not provide sensitive personal information, such as phone number, password, address, credit card number, Social Security number, health information, or date of birth, in chat rooms, forum postings, email messages, or in your online biography.
Consider obtaining an email address from one of the free Web-based email services such as www.hotmail.com or www.yahoo.com. Create a non-identifying email address and use it when you participate in newsgroups and other public forums. Your online biography, if you ever create one, may be searched system-wide by anyone. If for any reason you need to safeguard your identity, don't create an online biography. Ask the system operator of your ISP to remove you from its online directory. If you publish information on a personal Web page, note that marketers and others may collect your address, phone number, email address, and other information you provide. If you are concerned about your personal privacy, be discreet on your personal Web site.
Every day, most of us give away information about ourselves, sometimes knowingly and at other times, unknowingly. You are your best privacy protector. Be careful out there in cyberspace! Use common sense and be aware of all things taking place around you.
Jeffrey B. Dalin, DDS, FAGD, FICD, practices general dentistry in St. Louis. He also is the editor of St. Louis Dentistry magazine and spokesman and critical-issue-response-team chairman for the Greater St. Louis Dental Society. His address on the Internet is www.dfdasmiles.com. Contact him by email at email@example.com, by phone at (314) 567-5612, or by fax at (314) 567-9047.