Surfing in a Fishbowl

Internet security has become the stealth issue of the Information Age.

As both individuals and companies rely more and more on the Web, they can be unexpectedly hit by a loss of privacy or, worse, damage to their financial well-being.

The Internet's inherent openness and ease of access makes it vulnerable to hackers, criminals, and those companies that collect and sell personal data about Web surfers.

Last year, the costs of computer crime may have been close to $10 billion, estimates the Computer Security Institute. In January, the 300,000 online customers of a CD seller found out their credit-card numbers had been stolen.

Government officials are now eyeing the recent data-gathering strategies of DoubleClick, Inc., the largest Internet advertising firm. The company's goal was to link information it gathers about Web surfers' viewing preferences to data compiled offline about individuals' buying habits.

The latter data comes with a name and address. Thus the anonymity Web users may feel they have is lost.

Armed with this profiling capability, DoubleClick hoped to more accurately target its ads at people likely to be interested in its clients' products.

But such invasive practices don't allow enough protection for Web users who may not want personal information floating in the cyberuniverse.

DoubleClick and other ad companies tempted to follow its lead wisely have shelved their data-merging plans for now. They're trying to reassure consumers that privacy will be respected and build in ways to let people "opt out" of any reuse of personal information.

So far, the Net's benefits far outweigh these security and privacy concerns. It is a giant job and productivity engine. The industry is eager for self-regulation that would preclude a heavy government hand.

The Internet's openness requires trust in order to work well. It began with a small, trusting community, and can expand if no one erodes that trust by taking undue advantage of it.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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