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Cyberspace and Privacy


By Estelle Daniels

When the magicians of old talked about traveling to the astral planes, they never imagined that the internet would become the modern equivalent. Cyberspace is intangible and it is a place without a place and not in the real-time world. You can travel far and wide yet never leave your home. But there are also pitfalls, and issues which many who have enthusiastically jumped into cyberspace haven't considered.

The average person has a computer and modem, and subscribes to some service which allows them access to the internet. They also have an e-mail address, which allows them to send and receive mail. They browse the internet, and may participate in chat rooms.

The first illusion is that what you access and do are totally private. If you use a service, the sysop, (systems operator), also has access to your accounts and e-mail if only to be able to retrieve a lost password, but also to monitor what you are doing if necessary. This protects the sysop as well as you.

Every computer system has a back door, a way the designers left to have access in cases of emergency. Hackers delight in breaking in and checking out other computer systems just for the fun of it. Businesses and industry have elaborate encryption codes to help maintain privacy, but the best encryption is only good until someone breaks it.

People have sent messages e-mail and those messages have ended up in the hands of people they were never meant for. Even private and confidential e-mail messages can be opened and read by others if they know what to look for and how to get in. Read each message with a thought about its impact if it were made public. Confidentiality and outing are big issues in magickal groups. If you correspond and use a code name, avoid using any mundane name or home address. If you refer to others, use nicknames that would be meaningless to an outsider. Keep all descriptions general enough so as to not allow an outsider to identify people, places or incidents.

Participating in a chat room is a great way to meet people and exchange information and find friends. Be aware that for every person who posts in a chat room, there are at least 20 "lurkers", people who log in, but do not actively post. Chat rooms are in effect gigantic party lines, and anyone can 'listen in', the kid next door, or the fundamentalists who think anything occult is Satanic. Next time you post, think about that information getting into the hands of those people. Is there anything to identify you personally? People have been targeted with mailings, phone calls and actual visits by fundamentalists eagerly wanting to reform them, and the information was obtained on the internet. Don't do that to yourself or a friend.

Some people are not "out" in their mundane life, that is they have chosen to keep private their religion, their magical affiliations, their sexual orientation, their leisure activities. If they are on the internet, they have to be careful, because anyone can drop in to a chat room. If you are out, keep in mind the many who are not, and don't jeopardize their livelihoods or family relationships by casually dropping details of their lives such as where they work, their home address, the street they live on, phone number, or their real name. Just because the Constitution guarantees religious freedom, it doesn't mean a vindictive boss can't fire you for other reasons. And sexual orientation is not protected under the Constitution.

Another thing you encounter in cyberspase is "flame wars", acrimonious exchanges between people who take disagreement to extremes. Chat rooms are semi-anonymous, and people have fewer inhibitions about getting down and dirty anonymously. Again, there is no guarantee of confidentiality, at the very least the sysop knows who you are, and people have been banned from chat rooms for going too far. Also people who follow chat rooms for a while get to know regulars and over time can gather information which just might allow them to identify participants. Then when things get really nasty, someone might say, I know who you are Johndoe, you are really Joe Slob who lives at 666 Main Street. If you really are Joe Slob, your cover is blown and people may respond more directly to your comments. And if someone guessed wrong, and Johndoe really isn't Joe Slob, you can bet Joe Slob will still be contacted about the matter in question, and then someone else's life has been made difficult by a thoughtless person. 

Even in private e-mail, don't do this kind of thing because that information (the kind which is potentially the most damaging) occasionally gets out. Murphy's Law. If you need to identify someone, use a handle, a magical or mundane nickname or a description vague enough that an acquaintance in another arena of life would not identify the individual. The Victorians used initials--JS or M de W. Unless a person has a name like Xavier Zapata that can work.

If you really need to talk in person, you might consider giving out your phone number in parts in more than one e-mail. Or arrange to meet at a neutral place, wearing a carnation or a big hat. It's hokey but it still works. And remember, there are many types of predators on the internet, and you cannot be too careful when meeting strangers. People are truly anonymous on the internet, and you cannot really prove anything about someone until you do actually meet them.

In the same way, cellular and cordless phones are not really private either. Remember Princess Di and the Squidgie tapes? Neighbors can listen in on a cordless phone in a manner similar to the party lines of old. And with radio equipment cellular conversations can also be monitored.

The internet is a wonderland, and with a little care and forethought it can be safe as well.

Eight words the Wiccan Rede fulfill, an ye harm none, do what ye will. 

Blessed Be.

© 1996, 2003 Estelle Daniels, all rights reserved.