The end of anonymous surfing?

May 5, 2010 by · Leave a Comment
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When you surf the internet, you are, by and large, anonymous. I don’t mean that your online activities can’t be tracked back to you via your IP number and your ISP, but that the site you are visiting doesn’t know who you are. You can log in to the site, and by doing so you are telling the site who you are. But the default is that you are anonymous.

The significance of the recent changes in Facebook that I discussed in the previous post is that they herald the end of anonymity as we surf. So far there are three sites who know who you are when you access them – Pandora, Yelp, and Docs.com. There will be more. What this means is that you will be taking your Facebook identity with you wherever you go on the internet. You will not be anonymous. Our online and offline identities, which are already merged in Facebook, will be united across the entire internet, with Facebook, a commercial company, acting as the go-between.

You can opt out of this. Right now it’s easy enough – there are only three sites you need to do it for. But as Facebook spreads out to more and more sites, it will become harder for us to control. This means that sites will be able to serve us with more personalized experiences (and more individually-tailored advertisements, of course), which for many people may be a worthwhile benefit. Other people may be slightly anxious that a privately-owned company is becoming the mediator between us and the internet.

Study day on the internet and privacy at The Israeli Law, Information and Technology Authority

March 25, 2010 by · Leave a Comment
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Inside the Israeli Ministry of Justice, sits The Israeli Law, Information and Technology Authority (ILITA). It’s aim is to strengthen data protection and privacy issues in Israel. By all accounts, it appears to be doing a very good job.

On Tuesday, 23 March, 2010, it held a study day on “issues relating to the collection and processing of data in the context of internet websites”. The talks were extremely interesting, even for a non-lawyer like myself. What struck me, though, is the extent to which lawyers and legislators are struggling today with technologies that have been around for years, particularly cookies. If they still haven’t worked out how to deal with them, what chance that the law will look forward and think about how it might deal with emerging technologies in the future?

An interesting issue that came up a number of times was that of informed consent. Informed consent is deemed crucial before a company can start processing data from a user. However, how should this be received? Is it enough to place a privacy policy in legalese in order to cover your backside? What if the privacy policy is in clear language? Does that mean that anyone is more likely to read it? And if you ask people to click to accept the site’s terms and conditions, does anyone read them? And even if they did read them, would they necessarily understand them? Do they know what an IP address is? Or a clickstream? Or behavioral targeting? How do you receive informed consent about something that really is very complicated indeed? Should the state step in and adopt paternalistic legislation, based on the assumption that people don’t want their privacy abused, but are not able to understand if the site they are entering into an agreement with is going to abuse their privacy?

How Privacy Vanishes Online, a Bit at a Time – NYTimes.com

March 17, 2010 by · Leave a Comment
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There’s a great article in the New York Times today: How Privacy Vanishes Online, a Bit at a Time – NYTimes.com.

It’s about how our privacy may be eroding in ways that we cannot really perceive. Partly, this is because of data mining techniques that enable discrete pieces of information about us to be tied together, thus exposing our identity.

No less interesting than the article are the comments at the end of it. There we can find a few arguments that reflect different views to privacy. In a nutshell, these are:

  1. There is no privacy any more, so let’s work out how we make transparency work for us
  2. If you want to preserve your privacy, don’t take any part in social internet sites, and don’t blame others if the information you put out there comes back to haunt you later on
  3. If you don’t take part in social internet sites, you are putting yourself at a disadvantage in comparison to people who do (you lack information)
  4. What’s new? Court records and so on have always been publicly available
  5. The internet isn’t the problem – look how much information the credit card companies have about you

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