Putting America's privacy to the test

SAN FRANCISCO (10/27/2003) - The right to privacy: It's a quintessentially American notion. Instinctively, we bristle at anything that threatens it. And yet when it comes to our PCs, privacy--defined by my trusty Merriam-Webster's as "freedom from unauthorized intrusion"--feels less like a right and more like a vanishing natural resource. Tally up every piece of spam, every virus attack, and every probe of your PC seeking vulnerabilities, and you may find that your privacy is being invaded dozens of times a day.

Enter "The Great American Privacy Makeover." This special report is the result of five months of work by a PC World all-star team: columnists Anne Kandra (Consumer Watch) and Andrew Brandt (Privacy Watch), Senior Editors Rebecca Freed and Anush Yegyazarian and Executive Editor Edward N. Albro.

The project began when we fielded our first-ever survey of Americans' privacy opinions and practices. Some of the results weren't a shock--for instance, 88 percent of respondents said they were concerned about Web sites that share or sell their e-mail addresses.

But we also gleaned some revealing factoids. "What surprised me most," says Yegyazarian, "was that about 34 percent of the people we surveyed admitted they never change their passwords."

Every respondent got a Privacy Quotient--a personal security rating, with a maximum score of 100. The average PQ was 56; you can see how yours compares by taking the complete survey, with automated scoring.

Once we'd crunched the data, Senior Associate Editor Brandt hit the road to visit respondents in three cities, analyze their current privacy habits, and give them new tools and strategies. His advice makes for fascinating reading, and many of his recommendations--along with tips and product picks throughout the article--are bound to make sense for you.

One of our key conclusions from all this research: Even sophisticated tech users aren't doing everything they can to defend themselves from today's threats.

As Brandt puts it, "Computer users everywhere know they need to take security seriously--the problem is the scope of that job." Simply finding the time to erase your browser cache, choose hacker-resistant passwords, and patch Windows early and often can be a daunting challenge for busy professionals.

Busy professionals like, for instance, PC World editors. "Working on this story," says Freed, "spurred me to finally get a password manager app and encrypt the sensitive files on my hard drive."

As for your obedient editor, my Privacy Quotient was (gulp) 57--a shade above average, but still a wake-up call. You can bet I'll find the time to give myself a privacy makeover--with the help of this month's article.

Top 100: Beyond the PC

On another note entirely, this issue also features an improved version of our Top 100 hardware section. At first blush, the section--spearheaded by Executive Editor Tracey Capen, Test Center Director Ulrike Diehlmann and the reviews and testing teams--doesn't look much different. But unlike every edition before it, this one doesn't lead off with PCs. Instead, it opens with tests of new, ultra-versatile graphics cards.

Why the change? When the Top 100 debuted back in 1996, the big story about hardware was nearly always...well, the PC itself. But today, the most newsworthy hardware often lies beyond the box.

So the Top 100 will now start with a "Spotlight"--an expanded roundup of products in an ever-rotating range of categories. But don't worry, system buffs: Reviews of the latest desktops and notebooks will still appear every month.

We hope that you'll find this revised approach useful--and that you'll suggest product categories for us to cover in upcoming issues. I'm at mageditor@pcworld.com--and I'm all ears.

Harry McCracken is editor of PC World.

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