Considering the "Private" Citizen
One of the biggest attractions to internet usage has been anonymity for users. Unfortunately, this booming industry is taking a blow (albeit minor) because anonymity is no longer guaranteed. Some of the biggest companies in the internet business have failed to protect users data. Yahoo, Intel, Microsoft, Excite, and Macromedia are just a few of these. Recently, at the Computers, Freedom, and Privacy Conference, the issue was brought to the forefront. The United States is the chief innovator of the net; however, its protection policies are insufficient.
Due to the recent privacy blunders, consumers and law-makers are stirring up a heated debate against internet and software companies. Just recently (April 1999), AT&T emailed 1,800 customers some information on calling rates for their Connect N Save program (CNET News.com). According to AT&T spokesman, Mark Siegel, it was human error that led each customer to also receive the email addresses of the other 1,799. Research analysts such as Kate Delhagen (Forrester Research) believes that incidents such as this one will happen more frequently in the future. She calls it a gross violation of consumers privacy. AT&Ts mistake was ill-timed as it occurred just one day after Nissan exposed a list of more than 24,000 email addresses of potential SUV buyers (CNET News.com).
It seems as if consumers have a right to fear the misuse of their personal information. Simply exposing ones email address can have harmful effects upon individuals. One day an average person is shopping online for a new car, the next day, he might be the target of solicitation, or harassment. Even Hong Kongs chief privacy watchdog thinks the U.S. is doing a poor job of protecting privacy (CNET News.com). Hong Kong is not known for its sensitivity to such subjects either.
Recently, Wintel has stamped digital identities on everything its consumers touch. Microsoft has planted hidden identifiers in every document created in Office 97 (see CNET News.com, The Register, and Wired News). And one of the latest breaches of personal security has been Intels Pentium III Processor Serial Number (PSN) (see Wired News, Big Brother Inside, and CNET News.com). Hard-coded serial numbers which can identify consumers have allowed the company to track and monitor individuals. If one was expecting anonymity while surfing the web, using email, or sending documents, you can forget it with the PSN. With its tracing ability, a consumer can be completely profiled, harassed, and solicited, and kids can be easily subjected to predators.
A complaint, as well as a supplement to a complaint, has been filed against the Intel Corp. - the makers of the PSN chip. The Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT) has supplemented that the Pentium III is harmful to kids, teens, and everyone else because it violates individual privacy and subsequently, Section 5 of the FTC Act (CDT).
As previously mentioned, the ability to access information without being identified is what has made the internet so attractive. Now that this benefit is at risk, consumers are fleeing and net companies are hurting. The lack of privacy is problematic for the growth of internet commerce. Web companies want it to be economically worthwhile for them to bring privacy issues to the forefront. A battle is brewing and it involves a number of issues for these companies: how to improve financially and technologically, and how to protect as well as benefit companies and consumers. Much is being determined by legislation these days (see Tips).
Unfortunately for net users, legislation policies and other forms of action take lengthy amounts of time. Meanwhile, information that individuals share with doctors, bankers, and merchants is being collected, bought, sold, and used. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) recently released a story of a loan officer who used information available via the internet to cut off the loans of customers suffering diagnosed with cancer. If a user is researching AIDS, sexuality, or depression on the web, he is not doing it alone. His place of work might have access to this information, and the job could be in jeopardy. Studies show that many teenagers use the web as a place to explore their sexuality, and a high percentage of these teens actually come out online (CDT). It is supposed to be a safe atmosphere; however, the most personal, delicate issues are now becoming public information.
Another risk that comes along with the lack of privacy is impersonation or online identity theft (CDT). The Center for Democracy and Technology discussed a case where similar electronic serial numbers for cellular phones were encoded by thieves and cloned onto chips, to other phones. This led to erroneous charges on consumers phones. This type of situation can easily happen with the PSN chip. Individuals can be associated with the wrong information, and therefore can be caught up in all sorts of problems. Even through the selling of ones computer, issues can arise. The PSN that once traced a certain individual has now changed hands.
It is hard enough for members of society to avoid stalkers, harassers, and solicitors. Portable phones are tapped into, trash is picked through, and predators are always watching. Now, the one avenue that seemed safe - the superhighway - is no longer a place for refuge.
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Social Psychology / Miami University (Ohio USA).
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