Intruder Alert

Internet Privacy for Dummies
By John R. Levine, Ray Everett-Church and Gregg Stebben
351pp. New York: Wiley. $21.99.

Privacy is serious business. In a time fraught with identity theft and determined hackers, keeping information safe online is a challenge. Clearly, the stakes are high. Even the casual surfer must take precautions.

Recognizing the need for safety, this latest addition to the Dummies series offers a wealth of useful information. While the book is obviously intended for the neophyte, even advanced users will find much to learn. It’s startling at this stage of the Internet’s existence how casual people can be with their personal information.

Starting with the basics, it’s probably never a good idea to give your social security number or bank account information to someone in a foreign country. While such things might seem obvious, a wise man once noted common sense isn’t all that common. Often, the worst security breaches come from careless individuals who all too readily tell strangers their life story.

Of course, companies that build Web sites and solicit business online share privacy responsibilities for as well. The occasional story of credit card numbers being hacked from a large Web site does not offer comfort to novice online shoppers. The authors make clear any respectable business should have a strong privacy policy prominently displayed on their site.

Even with the best intentions of all parties, there are people who simply steal information online. Here’s where technology really comes into play. The Internet’s wonderful benefits — most notably, constant access to an unbelievably vast array of information — also mean greater opportunities for intrusion.

At the very least, the authors remind us, everyone should have an anti-virus program and a firewall. Without these minimal levels of protection, the surfer is essentially walking naked down Main Street. Even these don’t guarantee total privacy, but they’re surely the best place to start.

The book goes on to offer very detailed instructions on how to minimize spam, diminish the threat from hackers, and tighten security around a computer. The discussion may get a bit dense at times, particularly when there’s protracted discussion of things like Pretty Good Privacy(PGP), but there are always helpful graphics and links to sites throughout the book. While not every reader may understand all the nuances and subtleties, the first step is to be aware of very real online risks.

In the end, privacy is everyone’s concern. Consumers undoubtedly want to feel safe online, and businesses must go out of their way to ensure that safety if online commerce is to flourish. Information thieves can only succeed if we drop our guard.

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