Your right to privacy: Use it or lose it
If you have money to burn, can afford to hire a team of attorneys to represent you, or aren’t dismayed by the thought of spending several years in court defending yourself, you can stop reading now. If none of the above applies to you, read on.
Only you can exercise your right to privacy. Everyone else is free to attempt to invade your privacy, but you are under no obligation to divulge any personal information. That includes your home phone number, physical address, date of birth, SSN, mother’s maiden name, or anything else that bureaucratic types typically “must” have in order to serve you. In many, if not most cases, any answer will do. The bored drone behind the counter just wants something to put in the block. Oblige him or her, along with a smile.
Buy a crosscut shredder and use it daily. Dumpster diving is a favorite tactic of identity thieves, disgruntled employees, ex-spouses, federal agents, private investigators, attorneys, weird neighbors, and anyone else who may have a reason to come after you. Don’t make it easy for them. Keep a separate bag for shredded material; do not mix it in with your other trash. When it is full dispose of it somewhere else, not in your trashcans or apartment complex dumpsters. They can’t read what they can’t find, especially if it’s also properly shredded. You can also use the shred to start your wood fireplace. It makes great kindling.
The IRS will hang you with your own records. The IRS does not require you to keep any records or copies of your filed federal income tax returns; it merely recommends it. Three years later the IRS may audit you and ask you to provide all of your records. But what happens if you don’t have any three-year old records for them to inspect? Due to a recently passed federal law the onus is now on the IRS to prove that your filed return was wrong. Pretty difficult for them to do without your records isn’t it? Let the shredding party begin. Keep only what you must.
Never associate your physical address with your real name or date of birth. If someone is looking you, for any reason, this will make it extremely easy to find you. Do not receive mail or packages at your physical address. Get a post office box or private mailbox. Better yet, if you can enlist a trusted friend or agent to receive your mail for you, do so. When you renew your car insurance change the car’s garage address to your work address.
Get a passport and use it as your primary form of photo ID. Never use your driver’s license, unless stopped by the police; always leave it “in the car.” Why? Unlike your driver’s license, a U.S. passport does not include your address or SSN, just your state of birth. You can greatly protect your privacy by using your passport, even if you never use it for traveling abroad. Any other photo ID–like one from your job–will usually work as a second form of photo ID. These normally don’t include your physical address or SSN either.
Clean out your wallet or purse. Do not carry anything that includes your physical address, home phone number, or SSN. If you can’t remember those you’ve got much bigger problems than a lack of personal privacy. The only agency that should ever get your SSN from you is the IRS, unless you happen to live in a state that includes them on driver’s licenses.
Social security numbers are not required. There is no law that requires you to have an SSN. If you do not currently have one, seriously consider never getting one. You can still get a job and you can still pay taxes with a Taxpayer ID Number (TIN), but you will not be eligible to apply for any benefits from SSA without an SSN. Of course, if you are like many Americans who expect that they will never see a nickle from SSA, this won’t bother you one bit. It will save you piles of money though because you will never pay any FICA. You will get to keep most of your income for the rest of your life. The IRS has no procedure to cancel your SSN once you have it. It operates on the assumption that everybody needs one, wants one, and intends to use it. If this does not include you, seriously consider life without one.
Your services will give you away. Any PI looking for you will usually find you by using readily available service records: phone, cable, gas, electric, DSL, newspaper, UPS, FedEx, etc. You will be much harder to find if those services and deliveries are not in your name. There are several ways to do this, some better than others. Be creative.
Your cell phone will locate you. New legislation and new technology turns your cell phone into a GPS that the authorities will use to find you. Of course, if it is turned off this problem goes away. Better yet, dump the cell phone or get an older, used one without any service. You can always dial 911 from a working cell phone, even one without any service. This works great for emergencies and it’s much cheaper than cell service.
Your computer is a goldmine of personal information. If you are not computer savvy, you need to get serious here. You need a good firewall, especially if you have a broadband Internet connection, like DSL or a cable modem. Use a good anti-virus program and update the virus signature file weekly. Download a good privacy protection program and use it to “shred” the piles of personal information that Windows leaves on your hard drive. Deleting files is grossly insufficient. Any 8-year old can easily defeat the weak measures that many people use to protect their innermost secrets, financial records, confidential email, Internet history, and more.
Your spouse can become your worst nightmare. If there is any reason why your spouse could suspect you of anything, you are in big trouble today. A cottage industry has sprung up in the past five years to assist snooping spouses. Your computer usage is easily tracked with the proper software. It is inexpensive, easy to install, and very effective. Password sniffers run in the background and make your attempts to protect your privacy useless, unless you take proper precautions. The FBI recently used a password sniffer to convict a major mafia don who was using strong encryption. He thought that his files were safe from snooping feds. Many divorce attorneys employ these same methods on a routine basis.
Use strong (128-bit) encryption and proper passwords. Encryption has come a long way in the past ten years. Anyone can easily download and start using world-class encryption in less than two minutes. If you are keeping a journal that you don’t want anyone else to read, ensure that you encrypt it. A proper password is at least eight characters in length, includes both upper and lower case letters, numbers and symbols, and should not be a word in any language in order to thwart dictionary attacks. An example of a good password is something like “T%nj8s3K.” Bad passwords include: your name, your dog’s name, your birth date, the last four digits of your SSN, or anything else that is associated with you that someone else could easily guess. Do not use the same password for everything and change them all at least once a year. Do not write your master password on a Post-It ™ and stick it on your monitor!
Go paperless. Contact all of your financial institutions and elect the paperless option. Your mailman will love you. No paper means nothing to file or shred and nothing for the dumpster divers. Keep it simple. Shred 95% of your paper records. If your records are ever subpoenaed, you are required to provide what you have. If you don’t have any, oh well. Plan ahead, shred daily. There are very few documents that you need to keep. In general, there is no law that requires you to keep any records at all.
Do your homework. Fire up Google and spend some quality time researching the following federal government programs designed specifically to snoop on you: Echelon, Carnivore (renamed DCS1000), and Magic Lantern. You will be amazed.
Security = privacy. Security is a process and privacy is a right, but there are no silver bullets. Privacy is your right. Use it or lose it.