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Online Secrecy – Right or Privilege?

Many people enjoy the notion that they are anonymous while online. It is, really, one of the common defining preconceived notions people have about the internet. It’s also, generally, a lie. Should it be? When you visit a website, post a comment on a blog or play an online game, should anyone else, whether it’s the police or a disinterested website administrator be able to track you down?

Consider this: every time you visit a website, your computer sends out a request asking for data. Along with this request is information on how to get back to your computer – otherwise it would be a lot like sending a letter asking for a response but failing to include a return address. This return information is available to any website you visit, although whether or not the information is stored is another question entirely. You may be surprised at how often it is.

The accuracy of this information is debatable in the hands of a web administrator. While specific to your computer, unless you are surfing the web from an office location or small school, the information will only narrow down your location to perhaps your city or even neighborhood – generally not your exact location. You will notice, however, I said ‘in the hands of a web administrator’. Your Internet Service Provider has much, much more information they could potentially hand over.

Recently the police were able to track down a wanted fugitive through World of Warcraft. Blizzard readily handed over his IP address, account information and billing address. While this may be no shock to some – obviously a company you do business with has your billing address – remember the anonymity the fugitive thought he enjoyed.

Should there be a reasonable right to privacy online? Do you want anyone to be able to see who you are, or should your online speech be protected through secrecy? One thing is certain, the perception of being anonymous on the web has become an ingrained part of the online culture. If or when that changes, the internet will be a very different place.

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