Privacy in the eye of the beholder
By Claire Wolfe
We were having some girl talk about Worst-Ever Moments -- Dora-the-Yalie and I, with occasional additions from Janelle-the-waitress as she trotted by our table at Hardyville's Hog Trough Grill and Feed.
"There was one time," Dora grimaced, "when a man I'd been dating introduced me to his best friend. He said I was positively going to love good old whatsisname. So, we met this creature for drinks, and within 15 minutes, the man was staggering drunk, pawing at places only my gynecologist paws, and telling me he knew I must be really 'sophisticated' and how about a little threesome?"
"Ugh. I hope your boyfriend slugged him."
"Well, no. I... well ... kicked him. Somewhere. And the strange thing is, the man I'd been dating kept on being best of friends with 'good old whatsisname.' Even tried to get me to go places with the guy, saying, 'Oh, Dora, he didn't mean any harm.'"
"Your best friend ain't necessarily my best friend," Janelle added between deliveries of beefalo burgers.
"Truth," I agreed. "You know, that reminds me of something. This isn't as bad as having your parts mauled, but its a real abuse of relationships, just the same. You're on the Internet, aren't you, Dora?"
"E-mail. People who send e-mail to whole, huge bunches of people and either use 'to' or 'cc' instead of 'bcc' for blind copy. You know what happens? Every single person who gets the message also gets every other recipient's e-mail address. It drives me bonkers!"
"But what's wrong with it?"
"Two things. First of all, it's as if some junk mailer sent you the names and addresses of all the other people he inflicted his garbage upon. And sent your name and address to them. They might include spammers, stalkers, fanatics -- you just don't know who they are or what they might do with the information. Worse yet, you don't know what the people they share it with might do. And the people they share it with. And the people they share it with.
"Second, sometimes some of those hundreds of people will decide they want to answer the message -- but instead of replying just to the sender, they'll reply to everybody on the list. I had one last year -- good grief, it took months to get rid of these jerks. Some guy decided he was in love with this female child molester whose case had gotten a lot of publicity. So he sent out pleas about how "misunderstood" she was and how "unfairly" she'd been treated -- this woman who'd behaved with all the integrity of a ... a ... Clinton! And he put everybody but the Ayatollah Khomeini on his open cc list. The only reason he left off the Ayatollah was because the old bearded dude was dead. Hillary Clinton was on the list, speaking of integrity.
"So naturally, these messages ticked off a lot of people, who wrote back to tell the guy, 'You're a pervert!' 'You're an idiot!' But instead of just telling him, these idiots used Reply to All, so everybody on the list was subjected to their rants, too. Then other people started screaming at them -- also 'in the open.' It was awful. And this went back and forth for months because a handful of weirdos refused to quit using open cc and Reply to All. I finally had to put a 'twit filter' on any message that even mentioned the fixated guy's name, so my e-mail program would trash them without me seeing them."
"Yeah, ugh. So now when someone puts me on an open list, I usually write and ask, 'Please use blind copy, bcc, instead.'"
"How do people react?"
"Most are great. They're usually e-mail newbies who just didn't understand what they were doing. Lots write back to say thanks for telling them. But every once in a while someone gets defensive. That's what your 'best friend' story reminded me of. Sometimes, people write back and say, 'You don't have anything to worry about, Claire. All the people on the list were friends of mine.'
"Friends of yours! Well, that does me a heck of a lot of good, doesn't it? What if they're not friends of mine? What if some of them aren't very nice people? What if some of their friends are spammers or con artists or collectors of bogus quasi-semi-hemi-demi famous people like me? What if. ..."
"But it's just an e-mail address, Claire," Dora said, trying to calm me down a little. "The worst thing that's likely to happen is you'll have a little time wasted. You might end up getting weird letters or XXX CYBERSEX ads. You can delete any message you don't like, right? No big deal."
"Oh, comon, Dora ... the guy didn't actually hurt you when he pawed you, did he? The worst thing that happened was that he made you a little uneasy, right? You could get rid of him by kneeing him, right? No big deal."
"Oh. Well, I still don't think it's the same. But. ..."
"Anyway, sometimes people can harm you just by having your e-mail address -- like sending you viruses or Trojan Horse programs, harassing you in a whole world of ways, or even tracking down your physical location. Sometime maybe I'll go into the ways malicious jerks DO use open cc to seriously harm people. But the bottom line is, Dora, people who don't respect e-mail privacy are people who don't respect privacy. People who are careless with e-mail are people who are careless. People who aren't sensible in using e-mail are people who aren't sensible. If they'll give away your e-mail address without first finding out whether that's okay with you, what might they do with your unlisted phone number, your social security number, or some personal secret they happened to have gotten their grubby little hands on? Yech!"
"I don't understand," Janelle said, stopping by the table. "We just got Internet and my husband's trying to figure out e-mail. What should we do?"
"Simple. Never. I mean, don't EVER, send mail to a group of people without hiding their addresses from each other by using the blind copy option on your e-mail program. That's the whole secret. If you don't know how to do that, check your documentation or call your tech support line.
"Even if you've made up a special group list, so you're only putting that name -- like 'My Little Update List' -- on an address line, instead of each and every address, put it on the bcc line. I screwed up on that once -- and nevermore! Now before sending group mailings, I doublecheck the address lines before hitting the Send button.
"The only exception is if you've got a small group of mutual friends and you want them to be able to write back and forth to each other as a group, then go ahead and use open to or open cc -- but only after asking them all if that's okay. That's the only legitimate use for open cc. Anybody who continues to use open cc for any other purpose after being warned of the potential consequences is a person with an agenda. Or a fool.
"I know some people don't think it's a big deal. But when someone has entrusted you with information, any information, and they didn't expressly give you permission to spread it around, better to be safe than stupid. Privacy's a fragile thing, and a rare one, these days. Please don't wreck what's left of it."
"Claire," Dora said, patting my arm, "Calm down, all right? Um ... people are starting to stare. And I think you've already said everything you need to say."
"Yeah, I know. But what I also know is that it won't do any good. Too many people just don't think. When it comes to privacy, and plain old good sense, Pogo was right: We have met the enemy, and he is us."
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