- The Washington Times - Friday, March 10, 2000

The virtual world just got a grim little jolt from the American Bar Association.
On Wednesday, the nation's biggest group of lawyers issued a no-frills primer called "Facts About Privacy and Cyberspace," which is enough to make even the most diehard e-mailer think twice.
Despite the jolly and well-publicized culture of on-line commerce, family Web sites, chat rooms and publications, not much is sacred or private on the Internet.
"We want to educate people about these issues," said Paul Marcotte of the ABA in Chicago Thursday. "All of the material has been pulled from existing documents. It's already out there. We've just edited it down."
Indeed. Congressional reports, industry surveys, legal cases, media reprints and ABA documents have been boiled down to a 24-page booklet that Mr. Marcotte said is available to the public at the ABA Web site (www.abanet.org/media/factbooks/cyberspace.pdF).
"Self help and self empowerment in this field is a good first step," said Jean Ann Fox of the Consumer Federation of America.
Internet safety, not to mention civility, is still very much a work in progress. And the on-line world is awash in personal information some of it authorized, and much of it not.
The ABA cited a survey from an FTC report to Congress that stated 93 percent of the 7,500 "busiest servers on the World Wide Web" regularly collect personal information about their users while only 44 percent post privacy notices. Just 10 percent comply with the FTC's recommendations for fair information practices.
And the public is already antsy.
An AT&T; survey found that 87 percent of Internet users were "very or somewhat" concerned about their privacy. An equal amount felt using personal data improperly was "very serious."
Nineteen percent of the respondents had already experienced an "on-line privacy invasion."
Protective consumer laws have not really surfaced yet.
While tax returns, library loans, welfare records and criminal investigatory files are not public information, the ABA noted, there is only a "patchwork of laws" protecting the retrieval of other personal information.
That can range from addresses and phone numbers to credit information, professional licenses, hobbies, medical and homeownership data and political registrations.
"In toto," the ABA advises, "information collectors can largely do what they want with most information collected in cyberspace."
The details about this collecting get a little hair-raising. Electronic "cookie" tags actually a file affixed to the user's own hard drive identify visitors at many Web sites, then track their patterns through the Internet, accruing elaborate "inferential" and "psychographic" data.
The ABA advises folks to protect themselves with passwords or services which mask "electronic footprints" or warn that a site is attempting to attach a pesky "cookie" to the visitor's computer.
A password, they say, should be "at least six characters long, contain a mix of alpha and numeric characters and be changed regularly."
The booklet also offers advice for young Web surfers, and to shoppers. Cyberspace notwithstanding, consumers should still comparison shop, keep records, buy from reliable and secure sources and use a credit card to limit liability is there is a problem.
Which brings us to e-mail. Most of the time, it does not conveniently disappear into the ozone.
The ABA notes that "deleted e-mail is often archived on tape and stored for years … unlike postal mail, most e-mail is not really secure and can be accessed or viewed on intermediate computers" unless encrypted.
There is the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, however, which prohibits unauthorized interception and accessing of e-mail. The law has some exceptions for service providers or employers who maintain that monitoring all that electronic gibbering is necessary for business.
But it is very tricky. Employers who fire or discipline an employee based on information learned through e-mails can be "a legal minefield," according to the ABA.
For all its practical brevity, the group remains modest about its new booklet, noting that it's meant to "generate further reflection."

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