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Website Privacy Revisited

Mark Dombeck, Ph.D. was Director of Mental Help Net from 1999 to 2011. Dr. Dombeck received his Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology in 1995 ...Read More

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p>Privacy being in the news of late, I thought it was a good time to revisit the issue of online privacy.

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p>I start by defining basic concepts you should know about in order to understand the online privacy debate. Next, I discuss in some detail the two primary instances where Mental Help Net asks for personal identifying information. I finish by pointing you to our publicly posted privacy policy and the Report on the Privacy Policies and Practices of Health Web Sites recently published by the California Healthcare Foundation.

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p> Some definitions to start us out:

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p> IP Numbers

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p> Whenever you send a message on the internet – you also send a small number that denotes the computer address that you are sending from. This number is called the IP address and it looks like this: “256.54.122.188”. These numbers are essential to communication on the internet and there is no way to do without them. Anyone at all who receives your messages (not just Mental Help Net) can track this number simply by listening for it with the proper software. Anyone who knows this number is capable of identifying the computer of origin of your message. There is no way, however, to trace this number to anyone’s identity in particular.

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p> Cookies

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p> Many sites (including Mental Help Net) have the capacity to save a small text file to your computer called a cookie. This is not a subversive thing – your browser is designed to allow for this to occur. The cookie is just a place to store some numbers or text and then read them back later on. It cannot be used to steal information from your computer. A typical use of cookies is for a site to store a unique identifying number on your computer so that the site can recognize you when you return and not require you to log in each time. Mental Help Net optionally supports this use of cookies for our chat and forum registration. You can specify whether you want automatic (cookie) login to the forums or manual entry each time when you first create your account – and you can change your setting from manual to automatic or vice versa whenever you wish by clicking on the “options” link at the top left of the browser screen while in the forums.

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p> Profiling

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p> Profiling occurs when someone takes personal knowledge of your likes and dislikes and uses this knowledge to show you things you like. Profiling is not in its essence a bad thing, I don’t think. Most of us ‘profile’ our friends all the time when we go shopping to buy them a gift (that is to say we think about what our friends like and don’t like and try to buy accordingly).

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p> Many sites on today’s web practice profiling based on the content you search for. For example, I recently visited a sports site and typed in a request to get information on a Pittsburgh sports team. On the page with the article that was returned to me, I noted that I had links to information on Pittsburgh. The site had noted my interest in Pittsburgh and was offering me special Pittsburgh related information. Someone else who wanted information on a Miami team might have links about Miami instead. Profiling of this type, when done well, can make for a more customized and enjoyable web experience.

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p> Cookies, Advertisements and Profiling

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p> Of course, profiling has a darker side – and this is the side associated with marketing and advertisements. Marketers use profiling too – so that they can show you ads for things you are more likely to purchase (because you like those things or have a weakness for them). Generally, modern web advertising networks practice profiling by having their banner ads place an identifying cookie on your computer, and then using this cookie to keep track of what ads you click on. “Knowing” you in this manner allows the network to send you ads similar to ones you’ve already expressed interest in – ads that should be more likely to catch your interest.

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p> So long as the ad network practices Anonymous Profiling (e.g., they do not try to personally identify you by matching your name, email, etc. to your unique identifier cookie), the risk to your privacy is smaller – the ad network knows something about you – but they don’t know who you are and aren’t interested in finding out. The bigger risk to privacy comes when the ad network does try to match your personal identity together with your unique id cookie.

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p> Mental Help Net uses the FlyCast Network to help us serve ads. FlyCast practices anonymous profiling. Mental Help Net would stop working with FlyCast if they ever began to do non-anonymous profiling – and so would a lot of other sites – and they know this.

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p> Collection of Identifying Information

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p> Mental Help Net collects personal information about you in two places on the site. These are our twice monthly digest mailing, and our community chat and forums registration.

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p> Mental Help Net Email Digest

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p> For those users who are interested, we offer a digest of mental health news and information, mailed every two weeks on a free subscription basis. In order to receive the digest you must ask to have it sent to you, or you must sign yourself up for it at the bottom of our homepage. We need to know your email address in order to send you the digest – so this is a place where we have to ask you for that information. We don’t disclose your email information or sell it or do anything with it except use it to send you the digest you’ve requested that we send you.

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p> To help us manage our large subscription list, Mental Help Net uses a third party company called Postmaster General (Mindshare Design) that specializes in mailing lists. Postmaster General has a strict privacy policy in place that guarantees the security and privacy of your email address on our list. Basically, Postmaster General says that they won’t let anyone but Mental Help Net see your email address (and Mental Help Net can only view it through a secure password protected connection), that they won’t let us send you SPAM (not that we would), and that they require us to help you know how to un-subscribe from the digest whenever you feel like it.

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p> Chat and Forums

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p> Mental Help Net requires that you register with us in exchange for the privilege of using our forums and chats. At the time of registration, we ask you for your name and email. We store this information on our system and use it to authenticate you each time you log into the chat or forums. Every time you visit a particular forum or chat, we record the IP address of your computer (see above). We don’t ever release these IP numbers to the public in any way shape or form (we stick to our privacy policy). We don’t ever have cause to use them in normal business. The only time we ever use them is to help us to identify people who have shown themselves to be publicly abusive of our community.

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p> From time to time Mental Help Net gets persons posting messages who are out to abuse, and to create chaos in our community. When we find abusive postings on our forum, we can use the IP number to identify THE COMPUTER (not the person) from which the messages originated. This helps us to try and keep this person from continuing to harm our community. If we know the computer’s number, we can instruct our computer to not accept messages from the abuser’s computer. Sometimes this works and sometimes it doesn’t. For the times when it isn’t sufficient to keep out the abusive users, we rely on our team of forum monitors – volunteer forum users who have been granted the ability to delete messages that are harmful to the community. I think about these forum monitors as akin to the white blood cells in your body that protect you from infection by foreign invading virus and bacteria by intercepting and eating them. Without these defenders your body would be littered with infections. Without our monitors, Mental Help Net forums would be littered with abusive talk. The monitors can delete abusive or offensive messages – but they have no access to the identity of the abusive persons. Only Mental Help Net staff can access that stuff.

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p> Mental Help Net is committed to your privacy and works to protect it in multiple ways. First, we collect very little information about you. Second, we don’t give out the information we collect from you – and – we require companies we work with to have similar privacy policies to our own so that your personal data remains safe and secure and as anonymous as possible.

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p> You can read about the details of our commitment to privacy in our privacy policy. When you are done reading our privacy policy, we hope you might want to check out the Report on the Privacy Policies and Practices of Health Web Sites recently published by the California Healthcare Foundation. Mental Help Net is represented in this document as MHNet. While we didn’t fair perfectly in this report, we didn’t do half badly either.

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p> Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.
Director, Mental Help Net

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p> Reference:
Dombeck, M.J. (Mar 2000). Mental Help Net Privacy Revisited [Online]. Mental Help Net.

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