Privacy is the No. 1 Internet issue

Privacy still seems to be the number one issue with the Internet. Last week a newspaper ran a three part series discussing just "cookies" and their ability to be used to gather personal information. A less discussed issue is how critical information, such as financial or other data, is handled on the Internet.

The Internet is not just you at your computer and a single target computer in the sky with which you are communicating. If you are looking at, for instance, there are many computers between you and the computer that handles the Orange County Register. Some of these computers belong to your Internet service provider. Others belong to the various "backbone" systems used by the Internet. Each of these computers provides a potential place for someone to monitor your communications.

It is unlikely that this would be of concern to you in your personal communications. However, we all have heard of the FBI program called "Carnivore." It was developed to eavesdrop on Internet communications and can be installed on any of these computers in the sky. So whatever you do on the Internet is not really private.

How do we keep Internet things private? The answer is encryption. Remember the "Jack Armstrong secret ring?" You created a message and used the secret ring to encode it. Only someone with another secret ring could decode it and read the message.

Similar systems are used today but they are much more sophisticated and can ensure a high level of privacy.

One such system, called Secure Sockets Layer, is built into Internet browser software like Microsoft Internet Explorer or Netscape Navigator and is used by most computers in the sky as well. It ensures that no one between your computer and the target computer can decipher any of the data you are sending or receiving. Anyone along the line would only see gibberish they could not understand. Most web sites that ask you for credit card or other personal data use SSL to keep your transmissions confidential.

You can tell if a web site uses encryption. In Microsoft Internet Explorer on my computer, a small lock symbol appears on the toolbar in the lower right of the screen when I enter a secure site. Many times the technical address of the site changes from http:// to https:// in the address bar.

Of course SSL only protects the data between your computer and the target computer. You must keep your own passwords secret so that someone cannot buy or sell stocks or other such things in your name.

Email can be kept secure using encryption also. In this case, encryption is not built into the Email programs. You must obtain your own encryption software and then can only send and receive secure Email with others who have the same software. This is a little more complicated.

A popular encryption program is PGP (Pretty Good Privacy). It can be downloaded for free at . Installing and using PGP is not for the faint hearted, but it does provide nearly unbreakable encryption.

You can see that there are many aspects of Internet privacy. Encryption is just one but its widespread use on the World Wide Web does offer a degree of confidence in exchanging critical data between computers.

If you would like to hear more about encryption, or other computer topics, visit "Coffee and Computers" at the Tustin Area Senior Center, 200 S. 'C' Street any Friday morning starting at 9 a.m. Bring your questions or just come in and visit.

In the mean time, keep the neurons happy, synapses snapping and enjoy computing.


Dr. Art Holub is a long time resident of Tustin and teaches computer and Internet courses at the Tustin Area Senior Center and the Tustin Adult School. Visit his web site at: This column is written to address the computer adventures and concerns of older adults. If you have comments, questions or suggestions for future columns, Email HIM at:

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