Privacy: A Casualty of the Information Era

Larry D. Rosen, Ph.D.

The National Psychologist

July/August 2002

When asked about privacy, Scott McNealy, CEO of Sun Microsystems said, "You already have zero privacy. Get over it!" In one recent study, 80% of the businesspeople surveyed were worried about privacy online.

The last time I wrote about privacy in The National Psychologist was at the end of 1996. Six years is ancient history in our technological world. Back then I discussed issues of communication privacy and showed you how to keep confidentiality for your patients. It is a whole different world now.

Out in cyberspace there are thousands of public databases with information about tax assessments, marriage licenses, property deeds, voter registration and more. To access them go to For $9.95 you can use online detective for 3 days. It is amazing what you can find in 3 days! For free, visit any of the websites listed in the table at the end of this article) and see what you can find.

Want to know what is happening on your office or home computer? Go to and type in the word "spy." There are dozens of inexpensive and free software to find out what anyone using a computer is sending as e-mail or typing into a website. Anything at all. It also works in reverse. There is a trend toward "spyware" which is a program attached to another program that you are adding to your computer. Spyware can monitor every keystroke, scan your files, and basically take anything from your computer. Patrick Douglas Crispen, who writes an informative twice-weekly e-zine called "Tourbus," says that "It is a little like inviting Mother Teresa over to dinner only to discover J. Edgar Hoover is secretly taped to her back." To tell if you have spyware on your computer, download Ad-Aware from or visit

Privacy? Yeh, right, sure. So, how do you protect yourself and your patients?

1. If you use a computer to store information about your patients you must protect it just as you would lock a filing cabinet with paper records. Password protect your computer and then password protect the files themselves.

2. Make sure that your password is not a real word; it should be a combination of numbers and letters. Many people believe that their data are safe simply because they have a password. Password cracking programs can find many passwords fairly easily.

3. If you are transmitting any information through e-mail, encrypt it first. In my earlier article on this topic, you can find information about encryption (

4. Back up your entire patient files regularly on a CD-RW (rewritable many times), an external drive (hard, zip, jazz),or a tape backup and lock them away in a cabinet that is not on the premises. The most secure place is a fireproof safe or cabinet.

5. When you upgrade your hard drive or sell your computer, make sure that you completely "shred" your client files. The easiest way is to reformat the hard drive before replacing it. You can also find shredding programs on Or, for the most definitive hard disk shredding, simply smash it to pieces and deposit the pieces in trashcans all over town.

6. Virus protect your computer. Buy either Norton Anti-Virus or McAfee Anti-Virus and instruct the program to automatically update virus definitions often. I have it do the update automatically once a week.

7. If you are using a broadband connection to the Internet (e.g., DSL, cable modem), you must have a firewall. People now use programs that scan the Internet for unguarded computers and gain entry for their own uses. I have a DSL line and use Norton Internet Security to defend against outside attacks. Believe me, it is the most important part of the computer. On a daily basis it stops attempts to enter my computer.

8. If you do any electronic data interchange with billing agencies, managed care, insurance carriers, etc., make sure that you are dealing with a secure server. Most often, a secure server will start with shttp:// rather than http://.

9. Every so often use to search for your name. If you find it and do not want the attached information available to the public, contact the web site owner by finding a section entitled "contact us."

10. When writing an e-mail, an instant message or participating in a discussion group, assume that the material could posted online or forwarded to others. Don't say anything you wouldn't want the whole world to see.

The rule of the millennium is to practice safe computing. It is a sad statement on where the online world has gone, but nothing is safe without taking precautions. Good luck in cyberspace!


Copyright, 2002, The National Psychologist. Reprinted with permission. The National Psychologist is a privately-owned bimonthly newspaper which may be purchased for $30 a year. Write or call: TNP, 6100 Channingway Blvd., Suite 303, Columbus, OH 43232; telephone: 614.861.1999 or fax with Visa or MC to 614.861.1996.