A Writer’s Right to Privacy

Kaitlyn Dunnett here, starting off a new topic. Recently someone at a listserv I subscribe to posted the opinion that “once you publish, you are public property.” I probably overreacted to this comment, but it really set my teeth on edge. In my opinion, someone who writes for a living is not a public figure like a politician, or even like an actor. Unless they choose to, writers are only putting the product they create out there for public consumption, not themselves. The content of my books is fair game. My personal life, including my real name if I had chosen to keep that to myself, is not. These days it’s far too easy to reveal too much. And far too easy for writers, especially female writers, to acquire cyberstalkers. It scares me to see author webpages and blogs showing recent pictures of their young children. Or information that tells everybody in the world exactly where they live. What do the rest of you think? How much is too much privacy to give up in the quest to sell a few more copies of your books?

Lea Wait My life is pretty open. I got used to it being that way in my “previous life” when I was a single adoptive parent who did a lot of adoption adovocacy work and my kids and I spoke at conferences and were featured in the national media quite a few times. I knew what it meant to have your name (and the names and pictures of your children) “out there.” So when I started publishing about ten years ago I planned for it. My telephone number was already unlisted, but before my first book was published I also  invested in a post office box as my “official address,” and even installed a security system in my home so I could list my travels and appearances on my website and not worry about unwelcome visitors when I was out of town. I also have one real advantage. Although Lea Wait isn’t my pen name — friends, family and colleagues have called me that since I was 21 — it’s not my legal name. I can sign books and not worry that people will be able to copy my legal signature, and if you google “Lea Wait” you can find out all about me as a writer, but any legal details about me are hidden under my real name, which most people don’t know. I have pictures of my grandkids on my website, and sometimes on my Facebook page. But I never give their last names (none of them have the last name “Wait”) or even what states they live in.

My only security problem hasn’t been the internet — its been local Maine tourist information centers. I’ve found they’re all too willing to give directions to my house to fans, librarians, or whoever else is curious as to where I live. Usually they call first to see if I’m home and if I’ll mind having, say, a young reader and her grandmother, stop in. (And usually I say to send them along.) But on two memorable occasions I’ve found strangers wandering through the first floor of my house in the summer time, when doors are open. “We won’t bother you! We’re just looking around!” Luckily, both times they were nice people, but … (And, yes, I’ve spoken with people who work at the information centers.) On the other hand, I live very near a local marina whose owner often calls to tell me how many people have stopped to ask where I live. He considers himself my private security guard. He’s very proud of his skill at sending them all away, telling them I’m a fiercely private person who has an impending deadline; that I never answer my door; that I can not be disturbed. Having neighbors like that has its perks!

Vicki Doudera: Yikes, Lea — strangers wandering in your house? That would be pretty tough to take. Thank goodness for your friend at the marina.

I think I am more “middle of the road” about privacy. I use my real name and am happy to be fairly open about my life in general. Perhaps when I have way more books under my belt and some sort of bestselling status I’ll feel differently, but for now it’s not an issue.

I did, however, balk at putting my cell phone number on my real estate signs. Not because of safety issues but because I don’t want everyone and his brother calling me out of the blue.

Barbara Ross: I guess I’m kind of sanguine about all this. Barbara Ross is my real name. For good or for ill, it’s a name so common “google alerts” regularly informs me my obituary is available online. (Barbara is also a name that belongs to a certain age group.) Like Lea, I use a PO Box, something I’ve been grateful for several times (except when house guests and repairmen call in a panic as they circle the UPS Store.) And I don’t give out my phone number, even on my business cards, mostly because I hate the phone. But with a few minutes of intelligent googling, you could probably figure out everything you’d care know about me.

I always find this loss of privacy amazing/amusing. In my cold war childhood, the communists were going to come and make us carry identity papers and the state would know everything about where we were and what we were doing. Now, for convenience’s sake, we’ve given the same knowledge to Visa, Apple, Facebook, Google and the like. But don’t try to take away my E-ZPass. I once told my husband that if I murdered him, I’d have to take back roads instead of the turnpike. He was kind of surprised I thought that would be my biggest problem.

Kate Flora. I think I’m still a little too naive about this. Once, after chatting with a guy about his writing at a Portland waterfront cafe, I gave him my card and told him to be in touch if he wanted some more advice about getting unstuck. My husband was shocked. And probably the man was  little bit crazy. I definitely attract the crazies. But I so rarely carry cards that it isn’t too much of a problem. I’ve never had anyone arrive in my driveway, and the people on Bailey Island never seem to direct anyone to my house. I have arranged to have lunch with readers, via e-mail, and that’s always worked out fine.

I worry far more about on-line privacy. I’m naively filling out some form and then I stop and think: Hey, why am I giving out all that information? A year ago, I discovered that when I joined Facebook, I’d filled out the information and there was my birthday and phone number and cell phone number. I quickly deleted most of that. If there is a birthday there, it bears little resemblance to my own. But there is way too much information out there about all of us. Anyone, never mind a determined stalker, could find us in an instant.  And yet, with all the information out there, I swear that those computers that keep our security questions and passwords are run by malicious imps. Recently, I logged into my on-line banking from a new computer, and it asked me to answer a security question. I answered the question with the correct answer, and it told me that answer was wrong. Suddenly I was in crazy world, where a computer had decided that truth was fiction. It took a long phone call to get it squared away. And one of those security questions–one I DID not select when I reset the account, asked: What is the password you most often use. Suspicious? Yes. Scary as hell? Yes. Do you suppose anyone actually selects this as a security question? Scarier still.

For vacation reading, I’ve downloaded a book called, “How to Disappear,” by Frank Ahearn, onto my kindle. Now there’s an interesting topic indeed.

Julia Spencer-Fleming: I remember exactly when I learned the importance of keeping your phone number private, and it had nothing to do with me as a writer! Ross was a baby lawyer (that’s an attorney whose diploma ink is still wet) and had taken on a pro-bono job representing a slightly crazy and not-as-low-income-as-he-first-appeared man in a divorce case. No one told him you never give your home phone to clients… well, you can imagine. We got calls constantly, at all sorts of weird hours. If Ross had been able to bill for the time he spent talking this guy down over the phone, we could have gone on a cruise with the proceeds. This continued right up until the moment in court when the wife’s attorney produced photographic proof the supposed destitute husband had a $100,000 RV stashed away in a friend’s backyard. (Needless to say, Ross had no idea.)

Sarah Graves: Well, Eastport’s a small place and I’m not hard to find in it, so if there was a battle over me being public property I’ve lost it, at least as far as real world stuff goes. Fortunately I have not attracted unwanted attention and hope that my very good fortune in that department continues. Eastporters are quite protective of my privacy, for the most part, and when there’ve been exceptions they’ve been fairly untroublesome. As for on-line privacy, though, there I’m much more vigilant; identity theft is among the crimes I least want to research via experience.

 And for anyone concerned about on-line privacy, here are some tips from Maine writer and cyber-crime expert, Jayne Hitchcock, author of Net Crimes and Misdemeanors:

           .  Select a gender-neutral username, email address, etc. Avoid anything cute, sexual,    diminutive, or overtly feminine.

  • Keep your primary email address private. Use your primary email address ONLY for people you know and trust.
  • Get a free email account and use that for all your other online activity. Make sure you select a gender-neutral username that is nothing like anything you’ve had before. There are many, many free email providers, such as Hotmail, Juno, Yahoo! and Hushmail. We suggest that you do a search using your favorite search engine and choose the email provider that best suits your own needs.
  • Don’t give out information simply because it is requested. Countless web sites ask you to give them your full name, date of birth, address, phone number, email address, etc. when you might just want to search their catalogs or read messages on a discussion forum. Give as little information as possible, and if they insist on information that doesn’t seem justified, leave to go elsewhere. Some people give false information at such sites, especially if they don’t plan to return in the future. Be especially cautious of “profiles” and “directory listings” for instant messaging programs or web sites.
  • Block or ignore unwanted users. Whether you are in a chat room or using IM, you should always check out what options/preferences are available to you and take advantage of the “Block all users except those on my buddy list” or adding unwanted usernames to an Ignore list in chat. If anyone bothers you and won’t go away, put them on block or ignore!
  • Don’t allow others to draw you into conflict. That may mean that you don’t defend yourself from personal attacks. It’s safer to ignore them and keep yourself above the fray. When you respond to a harasser in any way, you’re letting him know that he has succeeded. No matter how hard it is to do, do not interact with a harasser. When he realizes that he isn’t getting a reaction from you, in most cases he’ll move on to find an easier target.
  • Lurk in a new forum to learn local customs. Read mailing list or discussion board postings for a week or more without responding or posting anything yourself. In chat rooms, just sit quietly for 10-30 minutes to see if the discussions that are going on are truly something in which you wish to engage. Don’t respond to private messages in that time, either.
  • If a place becomes stressful, leave it. There are many stressors we cannot avoid easily in our lives, so why put up with those we can avoid? If someone is being asinine in a chat room or on a discussion board, there are countless others that are likely to be more pleasant. If another visitor to a chat room or forum is harassing you and the forum owner/moderator refuses to take decisive action, why would you want to be there? Don’t allow yourself to get tied up in battles over territory.
  • When you change, really change! If you need to change your username or email address to break off contact with a harasser, using a variation on your real name or anything you’ve used in the past leaves tracks allowing the harasser to find you again fairly easily. If you’ve always been “Kitty” and you change your handle to “Cat,” you haven’t really changed. The harasser knows that you have particular hobbies or interests. For instance, perhaps you like to play Scrabble. If he’s really obsessed or simply has too much time on his hands, he’s likely to poke around in different Scrabble-related fora looking for feline names to see if he can find you again.
  • Watch what you “say” online. When you do participate online, be careful–only type what you would say to someone’s face. If you wouldn’t say it to a stranger standing next to you in an elevator, why in the world would you “say” it online?
  • Know what’s in your signature file. Don’t put your company name, title, email address, address, phone/fax number, etc. there unless your employer requires that you do so. If you must provide that information, restrict use of that email account to business interactions with co-workers and customers. Do not ever use it to participate in any public forum (mailing list, newsgroup, web-based discussion board, etc.).
  • Never use a business account for personal use. Simply leaving messages on a discussion board will reveal your IP address to others. That information can easily lead to a stalker knowing where you work and finding you offline. Restrict personal internet use to home and public access computers.
  • Ego Surf. Put your first name and last name in quotes in a search engine such as Yahoo!, Google or Dogpile and see if there are any results regarding you. You just might be surprised at what you find. Also put in the names of your spouse, loved ones and/or children. Remember to put their names in quotes to refine the search results. Better yet, use TracerLock or a similar service to do it for you on a regular basis.
  • Never give your password to anyone. Your ISP will never, ever ask you for your password while you are online or via email. In fact, they shouldn’t ever contact you to ask you for your password, period. They can get it from their own records, if they really need it for any reason. If you call them for support, there are a few rather rare instances in which the support person might ask you for your password – but you called them, right? So you know it’s really a support person from your ISP that you’re talking to. There’s no legitimate reason for anyone to ever contact you to ask for your password.
  • Don’t provide your credit card number or other identifying information as proof of age to access or subscribe to a web site run by any person or company with whom you are not personally familiar or that doesn’t have an extremely good, widespread reputation. Check consumer advocacy resources before giving out your credit card number to anyone, just to be sure that your trust is justified.
  • Personally monitor children’s internet use, even if you have trained them in what information they can and cannot give out. There is no software in the world that can replace the active involvement of a concerned parent.
  • Instruct children to never, ever give out personal information – their real name, address, or phone number online without your permission. Consider posing as a stranger to befriend them just to see what you can learn.

Be very cautious about putting any pictures of yourself or your children online anywhere, or allowing anyone else (relatives, schools, dance academies, sports associations) to publish any photos. Some stalkers become obsessed because of an image. A random email address or screen name is simply much less attractive to most obsessive personalities than a photograph.

More information at:  http://haltabuse.org/



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