One more time: the Internet is public

[Note:  As Michael Covington pointed out, there’s plenty of privacy on the Internet–just not on the World Wide Web.]

I know I’ve mentioned this before, but I keep running across people who don’t understand that there is no privacy on the Internet.  If you’ve uploaded something to your Web site, it’s highly likely that Google, MSN, Yahoo, or any (or all) of the many other search engines out there has found it.  Even our Web crawler–a small-scale operation–finds things in hidden nooks and crannies of the Web that most people with browsers would never stumble upon.

For example, the other day a coworker was spot-checking some of the crawler’s latest finds and stumbled upon a site where the owner had uploaded what looks like (from examining the file names) a bunch of very private stuff.  This all in an unprotected directory.  A person with a browser could go to that URL, get a listing of all files, and then browse to his heart’s content.  Although it’s unlikely that a person browsing would stumble upon the directory, a crawler almost certainly will.  Eventually.

When we run across something like that, we don’t actually browse, but rather find out how to contact the site owner and send him a very nice email suggesting that he either protect the directory or not upload that information.

The day after discovering the site I mentioned above, we ran across the story of Alex Kozinski, a judge in the 9th Circuit whose personal porn stash was found publicly accessible online:

Kozinski, 57, said that he thought the site was for his private storage and that he was not aware the images could be seen by the public, although he also said he had shared some material on the site with friends. After the interview Tuesday evening, he blocked public access to the site.

Of particular interest in this case is that the judge was presiding over an obscenity trial (now postponed) that involves material that’s apparently similar to some of the material on the judge’s site.  The judge also had some copyrighted music on the site, opening up the possibility of copyright violation.

No matter how far out in the country you live, if you stand naked in front of an uncovered window, somebody will eventually see you.  Similarly, if you upload something to your Web site and don’t take active measures to prevent access, it will be found.  Do not assume that it can’t be found because you never told anybody about it.  That’s like putting a key under the doormat and figuring it’s safe because only you know it’s there.

2 comments to One more time: the Internet is public

  • Good comments. But by “Internet” I think you mean “World Wide Web.” There’s plenty of privacy on the Internet in things like VPNs, encrypted e-mail, etc.

  • Michael has a point, but you can encrypt your web content as well. That’s an orthogonal issue. The real problem here is that many people don’t understand that pretty much ALL traffic on the Internet is viewable by SOMEONE who isn’t a trusted party. Even VPN traffic is visible to many outside organizations, but since it’s encrypted they hopefully can’t make sense of it.

    The misunderstanding is not limited to the web. A recurring problem I see is people getting upset that their email to a mailing list contains their personal info (phone number, etc.) They somehow don’t realize that unknown people will read the list, and that it will be available and searchable through usenet[1] or a web archive.

    The real issue is not whether one can have privacy while using the internet, but rather knowing when something is public or not. Awareness of this will increase, but it’ll be a problem for a long time to come.

    [1] many popular mailing lists are gatewayed to usenet.

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