Opinion: 9 things you should know about your privacy and rights in the digital age

New book explains how Big Brother knows where you are, what you do and what you've written -- and how to protect yourself

Editor's Note: This article includes material from the book Blown to Bits: Your Life, Liberty, and Happiness After the Digital Explosion, publishing June 2008 by Addison-Wesley Professional. Authors are Harry Lewis, Ken Ledeen and Hal Abelson.

1. We know where you are.

If you have a cell phone, and a lot of people do, the phone company knows where you are. It has to. Otherwise it couldn't get any phone calls to you. Your cell phone reports its position fairly often to the cell towers in its area, and the phone company keeps that information around.

That's how the police were able to find Tanya Rider when she drove off the road. She didn't use her cell phone, but it was on and the police were able to find out where she was before her battery died.

2. Cars have black boxes, too.

Get in an accident, tell the state trooper that you were going 35 mph in a 40-mph zone, and he or she may tap into the black box in your car to see if you're lying. Many cars have them, and more will soon. These little devices record a host of facts about your driving: for example, how fast you were going and when you slammed on the brakes -- and recovering the data doesn't even require a search warrant.

3. Bits don't go away.

Remember that tasteless text message you sent last month? The phone company remembers it, too. After all, text messages are "just bits"; they don't take much space to store, so why not keep them forever, since you never know when someone will ask for them.

In June 2004, Kobe Bryant's attorneys gained access to the text messages of the woman who had accused him of raping her, including messages sent immediately after the encounter -- and including messages to her former boyfriend.

4. Your cell phone could be listening to you.

Your cell phone is a little radio station, capable of broadcasting and receiving, complete with a small computer that controls its functions. These computers can be programmed remotely -- no need to bring your cell phone into the store -- so that your phone will function as a roving bug, whether it is turned on or off. A court ruling in 2006, in a case where the FBI did just that, concluded that the process was legal.

5. Be careful when you throw out your old computer.

Did you remember to erase your whole disk before you tossed the old computer -- get rid of the password to your bank account, all the old taxes and a bunch of other things you had wanted to delete? Unless you really knew what you were doing, the information is still there, easily recovered. Even formatting the disk doesn't really erase anything. You have to use a special piece of software. There are plenty available. Or -- if you were really concerned and aren't giving the computer to someone who needs the drive -- take it out and whack it with a hammer. If you use your cell phone to read e-mail, same story -- deleting e-mail doesn't really get rid of it, so be careful who gets your old phone.

6. What's your iPod worth?

Most of the value is in the music you've got on it. If you ripped all your old CDs it might not have cost you anything. If you bought 4,000 songs from iTunes at .99 cents each -- then you've got a $3,960 iPod.

But what if you, like so many others, downloaded songs you found on the Web? Jammie Thomas, a single mother of two, was sued by the Recording Industry Association of America (the RIAA) and lost. Her 24 songs cost her not $24 -- the price on iTunes, but rather $222,000 -- a mere $9,250 each. At that price, an iPod filled to the brim would be worth $4,000,000. The legal and statutory damages for copyright infringement are steep. The $9,250 wasn't anywhere close to the maximum.

7. "On the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog" -- WRONG!

That was the caption to a cartoon by Peter Steiner that appeared in The New Yorker magazine in 1993, reflecting the sense that the Internet provided the ultimate in anonymity. That was then, this is now. eCommerce, free e-mail accounts, everything that happened in the intervening 15 years has turned that on its ear. Now there's no place to hide. Everything you look at, everything you search for, every location you reference in Google Maps, every e-mail you send through Yahoo, Hotmail and Gmail is tracked, stored and identified. We know you're not a dog.

8. Buy a song on iTunes and it isn't really yours.

Buying a tune from iTunes doesn't make it yours. You can't sell it to someone else or listen to it with some player that didn't get authorization from Apple. Imagine if you could only play CDs on players from the company that made the CD! Welcome to the complicated world of digital rights management, and the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. It's not like the old days. You can't give your digital tunes to a friend the way you could give your CD. Bits changed everything.

9. Be Safe -- in simple ways.

The world of the Web is far more threatening now that it was 10 years ago when people surfed anonymously for general information. Now it is the primary way many of us get to our bank accounts, shop for goods and services, communicate with our boss, our family, our friends and more. That change brought enormous benefits and a host of concurrent risks. All it takes now is a couple of numbers and your universe is unlocked. No one needs to go to your bank, stop at the broker's office, sort through you mail box or even go to the store and risk getting caught. So we offer a couple of suggestions:

1) Beware of anything that ever comes in an e-mail that asks for you to enter your password for something. This is "phishing," a cute pun for the act of trying to trick you into giving up the keys. Just don't do it. If you get something that says "your e-mail account will be canceled if you don't click here" just ignore it, and then go to the e-mail site itself. It's almost certainly a fraud.

2) If you are entering anything that you wouldn't want thieves to know -- your credit-card number and your Social Security number are good examples - make sure that the top line of the browser says HTTPS:// not HTTP:// The "S" stands for "Secure" and means that what you send is encrypted and can't be read by nefarious types. Otherwise, the whole world can see what you send.

(Read author biographies here)

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