The Inconvenience of Privacy

Most people who care about privacy are privacy fanatics. It’s an issue with very little gray area: Either you deeply care about privacy, or you don’t. Truth is, we should all be privacy fanatics.

It comes down to convenience and security. As long as my personal information is used in ethical ways that don’t negatively impact me, I don’t mind. Spam is a hot topic not because of privacy (though a privacy argument can be made). Spam is really a convenience issue.

I’m amazed by people who don’t view spam as a big deal. Invariably, when I ask one of these rarities how much spam they receive on a daily basis, the answer is, “one or two a day.” I hate spam with a passion, but I get over 200 spam messages a day, after aggressive filtering (500-800 without filtering). I spend about an hour a day dealing with spam — and I’m really fast at deleting it. I’ve also accidentally deleted important email in my vigorous pursuit of spam. All this is very inconvenient.

Spyware is another hot topic. People talk about spyware as if it were a privacy issue (certainly, there are some privacy concerns). But spyware is really a security issue. I don’t want any software to be installed on my computer unless I specifically install or authorize it. There are many reasons for this, not least of which is efficiency. I don’t want my machine bogged down with poorly written software that takes over resources. I also don’t want software that floods my screen with pop-up ads. Another inconvenience.

There’s a growing sense that individuals want to control their information completely. They want to decide when that information will be sold or shared, and for what purpose. Without some mechanism to make that task simple, we just let things go. It’s too inconvenient to do anything about it.

So, how can technology help?

Spam Filters

Hundreds of spam solutions exist, from blocking software to filtering software to spoofing software. Unfortunately, none really work well enough. All the filters I’ve tried sometimes grab my “real” email.

One company I’ve used for over a year now is Mailshell, an inexpensive personal email service with lots of good features. It isn’t a perfect solution, but it does work well. Apart from some problems caused mainly by my status as an “extreme power user,” it’s pretty solid.

My favorite feature is “disposable” email addresses. Essentially, you create any email address you want, on the fly, using your own domain extension. For example, your domain is “mydomain.com.” At the Someco site, you sign up for a newsletter with “someco@mydomain.com” (an address you made up on the spot). If Someco were to sell your email address to a list and you start getting spam at that address, you know who sold your address and you can simply shut that address off.

I got a call from a mortgage company one day last year. The guy was adamant I had requested contact from the company that very day via its Web site. I asked him what email address he had on the account. He said, “50inchsonyplasmatv@….” I burst out laughing. I’d signed up for a TV giveaway contest that day and had carefully opted out of all offers. When he hung up, he was very puzzled.

Spyware Removal

There are dozens (if not hundreds) of spyware and adware removal products out there. Ad-Aware, by German software company Lavasoft, is popular on Download.com. McAfee also offers spyware protection in its VirusScan product.

I’d be hard pressed to recommend any of the software for a number of reasons. First, because I’m not a privacy fanatic and the people behind these products are. These solutions block and filter too much. In many cases, these companies are nonentities I don’t know enough about to give them access to my machine. Wait, does that make me a privacy fanatic?

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