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"It was just like wow, there is just no freedom in this whatsoever."

-- Zylbergold, Author, No Strings Attached

Look Who’s Googling

New acquaintances and secret admirers may already know all about you

By Bonnie Zylbergold

On a recent flight to Italy, a friend of mine met a guy, hooked up, and assumed that was the end of it. She was, after all, on her way to visit her boyfriend. Unfortunately for her, she failed to take the wondrous powers of Google into account.

“I only told him my first name and a very general account of what I did for a living,” said Alison Charles, 26, who, until recently, has been dealing with her “cyberstalker” ever since that fateful flight last summer.

And as every Googler already knows, you don’t need much more information than that to tap into someone’s life, or email account for that matter. In Charles’s case, her cyberstalker was able to find out where she worked, and through her office’s website, how to contact her as well.

“He sent email after email,” recalled Charles. “At first, they were only mildly frightening, stuff like ‘I can’t go on knowing you’re out there.’ But then they got increasingly creepy and he basically sent me what looked like a suicide note, saying that he had nothing to live for without me in his life.”

Charles was lucky; her stalker stopped contacting her after she threatened him with a restraining order. But many women (and men to a lesser degree) are not as lucky, confirming people’s fears when it comes to personal anonymity and romance in this age of cyber snooping. Focusing on the widespread adoption of the Internet as a primary source for meeting new people, this month’s issue of Sexuality Research and Social Policy: Journal of the National Sexuality Resource Center seeks to make sense of the rocky relationship between the technology and sexual expression.

One such endeavor includes a recent study investigating the risks and benefits of online dating. The study, led by Dr. Paige Padgett from the National HIV Behavioral Surveillance Center in Houston, Texas, found that there was a false degree of safety assumed by women looking for love on their PCs.

Examining the choices women made when meeting men from online personal ads for friendships, love, and sex, Dr. Padgett concluded that the high frequency and intensity of email communication, prior to meeting face to face, lent itself to an accelerated form of intimacy on behalf of her participants. Said Padgett, “This may have affected women’s decisions to engage in risky sexual behavior.”

Of course, this is not always the case. Dr. Padgett conceded that although the Internet can foster a false sense of intimacy, and subsequently, safety, it does have its share of benefits as well.

“Women using email communication can gain a position of power in a relationship where they can pick, choose, and screen potential partners for similar interests and sexual desires prior to an initial in person encounter,” said Padgett, who added that communicating online can allow women to set sexual boundaries and sexual safety parameters before their first meeting.

Considering the constant influx of new mediums for Internet-mediated communication, including everything from laptops, PDAs, mobile phones, and other Internet linked devices, just about anyone with access to an electrical outlet also has unprecedented access to a person’s information, even their location at any given moment.

So how does one go about navigating the Internet’s treacherous waters while maintaining safety? Here are some helpful tips to keep your next online connection, romantic or not, in the right hands.

1.    Avoid posting your last name, email address, phone number, or where you work.
2.    Don’t post your whereabouts or anything that might suggest where you. For example, if you’re leaving the        office, don’t customize your IM message to say “Out on break, back in an hour.”
3.    Make use of privacy settings on web forums like Friendster, MySpace or Facebook.