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Emily Yoffe: When parents blow your online cover.
Emily: I'm Emily Yoffe, Slate's Dear Prudence advice columnist.
Farhad Manjoo: I'm Slate's technology columnist, Farhad Manjoo, and this is Manners for the Digital Age.
Emily: Today's question comes from a woman whose elderly parents are invading her online privacy. She writes, "Dear Farhad and Emily, like many people worried about Internet privacy, I maintain a personal e-mail address and another address I give out to companies and groups that might spam me. I'm very careful about who gets my real address. The problem is my parents who are in their early 70s don't get it. They routinely enter my primary e-mail address into forms all over the web – places like news sites, real estate sites, and YouTube. I've asked them to use my spam address, but they never remember. Am I being too uptight? Should I just give up and upgrade my antivirus software to DefCon 2 levels?" Signed, Privacy Hawk.
So Farhad, which address do you think she used to write us?
Farhad: I don't know. She asked if she's being too uptight. Yes, she's being too uptight. I think maybe five years ago, it took a lot of work to get a spam-free inbox, but these days spam checkers are really good. People are more sophisticated about clicking on viruses in e-mail.
I just don't think she needs to go through all this trouble and be so strict with her parents.
Emily: So basic antivirus software you think will take care of the spam, because I'm turning to you for the technical fix here.
Farhad: Like you, we both have really public e-mail addresses, and in my Gmail inbox, I get very little spam. Gmail is very good at filtering spam and other e-mail-based attacks out. I think that even if you have a really public e-mail address these days, it's not such a huge problem.
Emily: I'm more interested in the psychological aspects of this, and I really disagree with you. I think this woman needs to go over to her parents' house, sit down with them in front of the computer and say, "For the love of God, do not enter my e-mail anywhere except in the "to" line if you're writing a personal e-mail to me."
What is wrong with these people? No one wants their name to be entered all over the place – your spam e-mail or your more private e-mail.
Honestly, this letter made me wonder if one or both of the parents needs a neurological check up. How hard is it to get "stop violating my privacy"?
Farhad: I was confused by what was going on here. She says that they're entering it into news sites and real estate sites and YouTube. I don't know what they're putting e-mail addresses into YouTube for.
I think what she's talking about is if they want to e-mail her a news story or maybe a YouTube video, they're using the "e-mail a friend" function on those sites. That seems fine.
I disagree with you. I think what you're saying is that an e-mail address is a private thing. But I don't think it is. I think an e-mail address is your public face on the Internet. It's as public as a phone number. People's numbers are listed and they're easy to get to.
If your e-mail address gets out, you want to make sure that it's to a more limited group, it's easy to change an e-mail address. It's trivial these days.
A very practical fix for her is she seems like she's good at maintaining several e-mail addresses. Perhaps she should just create another one to give to her parents and they could use that exclusively to contact her and to enter her into all kinds of sweepstakes and then it won't affect her primary e-mail inbox.
If she's using Gmail, actually, there's an easy way to do this. Gmail has a function where you can use your Gmail address (JohnDoe@gmail.com). If you add a plus sign to your e-mail address, then you can create various different aliases. So, JohnDoe+Mom@gmail.com. You can give that to your mom, and then if they e-mail you there, you can filter all those e-mails out and look at them.
Emily: I love that there's a technological fix to the technological problem. That's beautiful and that's what she should do.
Farhad: Here's my bottom line, Emily. I think this woman is making much ado about not too much. She should just create a new e-mail address, give it to her parents, but really not worry about her e-mail address getting out very far. There's not too much risk in it.
Emily: And I think her parents are really violating boundaries and annoying her and they need to stop it. But I agree with Farhad – send a special e-mail that goes directly in the trash bin because you know it's junk from your parents.
Farhad: Send us your questions about shifting etiquette in the online age. Our address is email@example.com.
Emily: You can also join our new Facebook page where we carry on the conversation throughout the week. Go to Facebook.com/digitalmanners.
Farhad: And we'll talk to you next time on Manners for the Digital Age.