Online Privacy Fears Are Real


A 20-year-old woman stalked through the Internet and killed. Thousands of e-commerce customers watching as their credit card numbers are sold online for $1 apiece. Internet chat rooms where identities are bought, sold and traded like options on the Chicago Board of Trade. These are the horror stories dredged up by privacy advocates who say the Net’s threat to personal privacy can’t be dismissed as mere paranoia. And, they say, we’ve only seen the tip of the iceberg.

Invasion of PrivacyINTERNET PRIVACY is a murky, complicated issue full of conflicting interests, misinformation, innuendo and technology snafus. On the face of it, e-commerce companies and privacy advocates are locked in stalemate. Web sites want to know all they can about you; consumers generally want to share as little as possible.

Complicating matters further are criminals who break into Web sites, steal the information and use it for personal gain.

Advertising firms, who stand to gain as much as any from personal data collection, have absorbed the brunt of complaints from privacy critics. But Rick Jackson, once a marketer and now CEO of privacy technology firm Privada Inc., thinks ad firms like DoubleClick are serving as an unwitting smokescreen for the real privacy problems.

“There are a lot more people tracking you than you think,” Jackson said. “The data world is a very powerful and lucrative marketplace with a lot of players involved.” For evidence, he points to a Washington Post story that revealed that 11 pharmaceutical companies – including Pfizer Inc., SmithKline Beecham PLC, Glaxo Wellcome PLC – had formed an alliance and were tracking every click consumers made across their sites, then comparing notes. Consumers were never told.

“Everybody points to advertising. That’s just the tip of the iceberg,” Jackson said. “We as consumers don’t have any knowledge of what really goes on out there.”

At its heart, the Internet privacy problem is a paradox.

The Net was born as an open research tool, and thus was never designed to allow privacy or security. But at the same time, the Net seems to offer perfect anonymity, and most users behave as if they cannot be seen. Who hasn’t said or done something online which we wouldn’t do in the “real world?”
Warnings about revealing personal information online may sound obvious, but they often go unheeded – warnings such as “Don’t post notes in newsgroups or chatrooms you wouldn’t want your future boss – or spouse – to read.” Still, spend two minutes and you’ll find notes from Internet users in health support groups who are shocked to discover their supposedly private discussions about prostate cancer are now full-text searchable from a Web site.

In fact, according to the Pew Internet & American Life Project, 36 percent of Net users have sought online support for health, family and mental health issues, and 24 percent of those have signed in with their real name and e-mail address. Every question they’ve asked and every statement they’ve made is now stored on a hard drive somewhere.

Even the experts don’t have control. Jackson was a victim of identity theft earlier this year. He recouped all his financial losses, but said it was “a big emotional issue for me. Somebody’s out there ruining my reputation.” Super cyber-sleuth Richard Smith, now chief technical officer at the non-profit Privacy Foundation, had someone run up credit card bills under his name recently, too.

“They used my FAX number as the home phone number in the application and I started getting all these calls, ‘When are you going to pay your bills?’ ” Smith said.

Most of the horror stories from the online privacy realm stem from criminals. The most dramatic involves a 20-year-old Nashua, N.H. woman named Amy Boyer who was stalked with help from the Internet and then murdered Oct. 15, 1999. The killer, who committed suicide immediately, had purchased Boyer’s social security number for $45 from an online information firm, according a Web site authored by Boyer’s step-father detailing the murder. Congressional lawmakers are now considering legislation which would make sale of social security numbers illegal, which has been dubbed “Amy Boyer law.”

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