In cyberspace, everyone can hear you scream

You may have heard about Nikki Catsouras this week.

She’s at the center of the latest controversy about Internet privacy.  Of course, she doesn’t know it – she died, in a horrible single-car accident, on Halloween night 2006.  She was 18.

As usually happens, the police handling the investigation – in this case, the California Highway Patrol – took some rather graphic crime-scene photos.  Actually, in this case, “graphic” is an understatement.  “Repulsive”… “grotesque”… and there may be stronger words… come to mind.

Now, why do *I* know this?

Because those pictures have “gone viral” over the last 2 1/2 years.  Two CHP officers, in violation of all known standards of common sense and decency, emailed the crime-scene photos outside the CHP.  To no great surprise, the pictures then took off, and now can be found by simply Googling the poor girl’s name and clicking a link. 

Yes, I looked.

I damn near lost my lunch.  After one look, I can understand why the coroner on the case refused to allow Nikki’s parents to identify her body.   So imagine THEIR pain, knowing that any idiot (like me) can see graphic photos of their daughter’s body, mangled by a 100-mph crash into a tollbooth, in two clicks of an Internet browser.  Worse, imagine their pain as some of the Internet’s lower life forms sent those pictures back to the family.

This is an extreme example – but it makes a larger point.  And that’s the real point of this post. 

Whatever you store on a computer, or post on the Internet, is public.  Period.

The photos of Nikki Catsouras were “private”.  Until they weren’t.

I have (much less graphic) experience with the lack of privacy in cyberspace.  From both sides.

In my day job, I have access to any Microsoft Exchange mailbox in the company – for troubleshooting purposes, of course.  I don’t use it without the express consent of the mailbox “owner” (the real owner is the company, but who understands that?).  But even with that, I’ve had to tell people that the 100 megabytes of vacation photos they’re storing in their mailbox are more than their mailbox is allowed to hold. 

Think about that – what business do I have knowing about their vacation photos?  None – unless you count the fact that they had an expectation of privacy that simply doesn’t exist.  I am one of dozens of people at my employer who can access any mailbox in the company.  The reality is that none of us have the time to go grazing.  I have barely enough time to do my job.  I don’t have the time – or interest – to read other people’s email.  Nor, as far as I know, do my co-workers.

That’s not true everywhere.  Just this week, I ran into a situation where “private messages” that I sent on an Internet message board may have been read or leaked by a site moderator to whom the messages were not addressed.  I had made a comment about specific content on a separate website managed by that site moderator.  In an incredible coincidence, that content changed within a day or so of my “private” message.  Imagine that.

And it’s not just email.  Those with long memories may recall the proximate cause of the end of my time at ComedySportz  Richmond.  Yes, it was my own carelessness – but it was also my assumption that “private” meant private.  Foolishly, I forgot that once it’s on the Internet, it’s not private anymore.  I wrote a few “private” blog posts on my old LiveJournal that – well – didn’t stay private.  It’s my own damn fault, of course, but I should have known better.

The bottom line?  You have a right to privacy by law… but in reality, you have no expectation of privacy.  If  it’s stored on a computer, or posted on the Internet, it’s public.  Period. Live with that reality, and you’ll never be surprised by an email, blog post, or photo on the Internet coming back to haunt you.

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Author: Rob Hoffmann

Occasional blogger, full-time computer techie, radio producer (basketball, mostly), improv tech guy, generally nice person (if you ask me).

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