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How we're losing our privacy online

From personal photos circulated inadvertently on Facebook to ‘Web bugs’ that monitor our buying habits, the Internet is exposing the private us to the public more than any technology in history. Here’s why you should care – and how to avoid it.

Jacob Turcotte

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Gail Heyman didn’t go on Facebook often. In March Mrs. Heyman, who lives in the Atlanta area, opened an account just to keep up with a few friends. She found herself rarely checking the social-networking site, letting days or even weeks slip by between visits.

But in late June, she received a phone call from a cousin. He had responded to what he thought was her emergency plea for money on Facebook and wired her $2,000 – in London. As he thought about it more, he decided to call her just to double-check.

Heyman, who was still in Georgia, was astounded. Someone had figured out her password, taken over her account, and posted the fraudulent request. “They told my [Facebook] friends that I had been mugged, and that I was in a hotel and that I needed money,” she says.

Her cousin was able to quickly contact Western Union and cancel the transfer before the money was picked up by the imposter in London. Heyman, still a little shaken, hasn’t reopened her Facebook account but hopes to get back online in the future. “It’s made me think differently about doing things online,” she says.

The infiltration of Heyman’s account is the most egregious form of an invasion of personal privacy that is becoming one of the most pressing issues of the Digital Age. As we live more of our lives online, entrusting our most private information to social networks and other Web-based entities, the Internet is becoming our primary means of communication, as well as our filing cabinet; our shoebox to store photos, videos, and letters; and our safe-deposit box of valuable documents.

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