How we're losing our privacy online
From personal photos circulated inadvertently on Facebook to ‘Web bugs’ that monitor our buying habits, the Internet is exposing the private us to the public more than any technology in history. Here’s why you should care – and how to avoid it.
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Under pressure from the Federal Trade Commission and private groups, companies are trying to clean up the cyber Sanscrit. One industry group, which includes AT&T and America Online, is designing new privacy notices.Skip to next paragraph
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“Let’s make it easier for folks to act in the way they want to act,” says Jules Polonetsky, co-chairman and director of the Future of Privacy Forum, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank underwritten by companies such as AT&T, AOL, Intel, eBay, and Facebook. “Yes, I can make a silly joke to my friend. It can be easily watched by my friends, but I can easily make it go away if I need to.”
Advertisers are reacting to criticisms, too. Earlier this summer, four leading advertising trade associations announced they would recommend that their members direct users to a site where they could learn what information had been collected on them, how it was being used, and opt out if they wished.
Some people are suggesting a different way to protect against such surreptitious monitoring – digital decoys. Ms. Nissenbaum and one of her graduate students has developed a downloadable program for Web browsers called “Track Me Not.” It automatically sends out massive numbers of fake search queries so the real search is hidden in the chaff, which would prevent a Web bug from compiling information about surfing patterns.
Another program, called “Vanish,” being developed at the University of Washington, makes e-mail messages unreadable after a period of time, preventing them from being stored indefinitely.
In the end, the surest way to protect our privacy might be societal indifference. In the early 1990s, Bill Clinton’s admission of marijuana use as a youth triggered a mini-scandal. Barack Obama’s admission of youthful drug use in 2007 hardly drew a talk-show tantrum. People seem more forgiving today.
In that vein, maybe that photo we once posted online of us dancing on the tabletop, thinking it was funny, won’t come back to embarrass us decades later. As Patricia Abril, a law professor at the University of Miami, puts it: “Maybe we’ll be more accepting.”
In other words, maybe we’ll all just get over it.
· Husna Haq contributed to this report.