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AOL's terms of service which had it's users "baring all" whether or not they wanted to, what privacy to expect, and what steps you might want to take.

Listen to the Podcast: Got Privacy?


AOL was recently called to task for wording in it's terms of service for AOL Instant Messenger that included the phrase "You waive any right to privacy." Now, AOL quickly backpeddled and said that the phrase was meant for information posted publicly, but it does raise a good question...

How much privacy can you expect?

The reality is that, whether it's explicit in the terms of service or not (and it usually is), any ISP, mail, chat or instant messaging provider has the ability to look at every message it handles. And in fact they usually can be required to provide it all to law enforcement in response to a warrant. Now, given the sheer volume of messages that are traveling across these systems, it's unlikely that any of us are important enough to gain their interest, but still ... they could.

In the corporate setting things are much clearer and much worse. Companies take the position that since they own their computers, as a result they own the communications that go to and from them. They have every ability, and currently every right, to monitor your email, IM conversations and more, when you use their equipment. Your privacy ends where your paycheck begins.

And I haven't even touched on spyware.

So what's a person to do? I'd start with three things:

First: Relax. Unless you're breaking the law or involved in highly secret work of some sort, or maybe if you pissed off your local computer geek, chances are no one really cares what you're saying. Sorry to say it, but you're probably just not that important.

Second: Use common sense. Don't sent corporate or highly personal secrets over public networks and services. If you must, make sure that it's encrypted in some way.

Finally: Run a spyware scan regularly. All the caution in the world does you nothing if someone's installed a keystroke logger or other spying software directly on your machine.

I'd love to hear from you. This is article #3738 - to leave a comment, go to, enter 3738 in the go to article number box, and add your comments to the discussion.

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Article C2309 - March 20, 2005 « »

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Leo Leo A. Notenboom has been playing with computers since he was required to take a programming class in 1976. An 18 year career as a programmer at Microsoft soon followed. After "retiring" in 2001, Leo started Ask Leo! in 2003 as a place for answers to common computer and technical questions. More about Leo.

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