Computer Privacy Annoyances, by Dan Tynan ISBN 0-596007752

Reviewed by: Robert Boardman, September 2005
Published by: O'Reilly
Requires: N/A
MSRP: US$19.95, CAN$27.95

The back cover of this book says, “Our privacy is shrinking like the polar ice caps. Every day brings another intrusion . . . it's time to fight back and reclaim your life.” Is my privacy shrinking? Is your privacy shrinking? There are many people who believe this to be the case. I do not, because for at least fifty years, lots of personal information about individuals and families, and confidential information about privately owned companies has been available to anyone who cared to exert the moderate effort required to track it down. The information used to be stored on paper in filing cabinets in medical, legal and government offices and in public libraries. Much of that same information is now stored electronically, a format which is just as easy to find, search and disseminate as paper files. Can you do something about the spread of information about you?

Yes . . . and no.

Author Dan Tynan deals with many of the common, well-known sources of personal information and some of the less obvious ones as well. He includes many anecdotes, some personal, some public. He discusses some of the legal issues. But he focuses on what individuals can do (or refrain from doing) in order to take control of their personal information. He also covers how to find out what personal information is available publicly (credit reports for example) and how to correct this public data. He deals with hiding data on a workstation, some simple ways to hide wireless networks, how to reduce junk faxes and spam. He discusses methods that are useful to protect against information theft during browsing and while shopping on the Internet. Throughout the sections of the book that deal with the computer, Tynan has lists of annotated and recommended software packages. Since most computers run a Microsoft operating system, the build of the software is for various versions of Windows, but he does not neglect the Mac.

Tynan also discusses various privacy concerns that are not specifically related to computing: privacy at work, privacy in public areas such as stores, libraries and the doctor's office, and privacy in relation to various government departments and agencies. He often reminds readers to use their common sense, to ask organizations and bureaucracies why certain information is needed. For example, is it necessary to know my address in order to process my grocery order? Some of his instructions could be summed up by stating, “Don't trust anyone else to care for your privacy.”

The book is set up as a series of questions and answers. Some of the questions or situations described seem a little contrived to me, but sometimes that is necessary in order to provide information using the Q & A approach. The style allows you to open the book almost at random and find good information. If you cannot find a topic of interest, or if you cannot find something relevant to a situation, both the table of contents and the index have enough entries to be very helpful without being overwhelming. I am not a big fan of this style of writing, but it is quite effective for delivering packets of desirable information. And the included anecdotes reinforce the author's concerns about privacy.

Computer Privacy Annoyances will be most helpful for readers in the United States. Tynan regularly (almost every other page) supports his discussion with summaries of American legal cases. His information about what can go wrong, how personal or private data can become publicly available is clear and important. However some of this information is only applicable in the United States (some employment practices for example). All the court cases, the laws and the various agencies that can or might have access to personal information are American. For example, the Patriot Act and the Travel Security Agency are discussed in several places. The act and the agency exist in the United States only. Obviously one book does not have the space to discuss laws, customs, practices and agencies everywhere. However, a disclaimer about the sources, or national bias, of the legal information, along with some reminders through the book, at least once a chapter, would be useful.

Most people who use computers at home or at work, and particularly those people who have high-speed (always on) connections to the Internet, can use the information in Tynan's book. People in the United States will learn the most, but there is plenty of solid, reliable information in it for everyone else as well.

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