Losing the Privacy Battle in the Internet Age

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Losing the Privacy Battle in the Internet Age

In the age before computers — and especially before the Internet — people could feel secure in their privacy because it was hard for others to gain access to their information.  However, that comfort zone no longer exists, because so much of our personal information is online, where it can be found by anyone who knows which keystrokes to use.

The September 2008 issue of Scientific American1 was devoted entirely to privacy, asking the question:  "Can we safeguard our information in a high-tech, insecure world?"

To help answer that question, the issue makes three key points: 

First, there is a distinction between disclosure of information that causes real harm and instances where it is merely embarrassing or annoying.  If someone has access to your credit card number, there can be real harm.  If someone finds out that you're taking Viagra, it may simply be embarrassing. 

Second, the right of individuals to monitor the activities of big business and government is essential in maintaining freedom and a level playing field. 

Third, different people have different preferences and needs concerning their own privacy.  Even while the Internet may erode privacy, it is also beginning to give people the tools to better control their own personal information. 

At the recent Supernova 2008 technology conference in San Francisco, which was organized by The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, security experts pointed out that "most consumers don't really understand how much information is being collected about them or how it is being used.  But when they find out, they are perfectly capable of taking control of their own destiny."2 

Speakers there used the example of Facebook.  In 2007 it introduced a system called Beacon that tracked what its members bought online and then shared that information with each person's circle of friends.  Facebook didn't announce the move, and within a month, outraged users forced the company to offer privacy tools to control that information. 

As the Internet merges with a whole range of mobile devices, this problem will only get more complicated.  For example, the data that companies now collect on consumers and users of their services in many cases would be illegal for the government to collect.  But the government can buy it from companies without breaking existing laws. 

It was once extremely impractical to find out if someone had a criminal record.  It involved individually searching the archives of all 50 states and 3,500 counties in the U...

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