Ants and privacy

It is amazing how something one values can be effectively eroded by thousands of tiny attacks. For example, the current barrage of ants at our house is wearing down my family’s quality of life.

Lest you think I exaggerate, we (along with the rest of my town) seem to be experiencing an ant invasion that won’t stop. What started as a trickle of insect scouts is now a full-scale invasion.

As an aside, I have a theory: Ants have gotten smarter. When I was a kid, you’d swat at a column of ants and they’d march on with single-minded purpose. Today, you swat at the little buggers and they run! I swear, this is new behaviour – they have got it figured out that when there are enough of them, no amount of swatting can terminate them all.

Anyway, the ants are driving us crazy, and you will not be surprised to learn that I see a parallel between the depredations of phalanxes of ants and the damage being caused by the never-ending stream of tiny violations of personal privacy by corporations.

The reason this matters is that personal privacy is more at risk than at any time in history. Over and above any changes in our rights as legislated by the government, e-commerce in its many forms is increasing the depth of what corporations know about us and is accelerating the rate of transfer of our personal information.

The trouble is that our corporate methods and systems for controlling this flow of private information is, at best, barely adequate and at worst, completely naive. Let me give you an example. I own the domain Gibbs.com. Out there (in the real world) are many companies with Gibbs in their names.

It will come as no surprise that many users aren’t really sure what domain they might be “at.” Thus, as I get all the mail that comes to any address at Gibbs.com, I see all the misaddressed messages.

Now, out there in the vales of education is the Katharine Gibbs School, which owns multiple domains (e.g. katharinegibbs.com, kgibbs.com, kgibbsny.com, kgibbsboston.com), none of which is the one that many of its staff and pupils assume should be theirs – to wit, Gibbs.com.

The school has recently started accepting electronic applications using the Embark Network, an organization that was recently acquired by The Princeton Review. According to the press release on the Embark Web site, “this acquisition firmly positions The Princeton Review as the premier college admissions products and services company, serving more than 1.5 million students, parents and counsellors every month, working with more than 1,000 colleges to enhance the marketing and management of their admissions process, and helping over 1,400 high school counsellors.”

Well chaps, I’m sure you mean well, but when a student uses your services I suggest that you don’t send their account name and password to the e-mail address they pull out of their…er, whatever…and then follow that up with a copy of their application that includes their name, home address, work history and Social Security number!

What I particularly like about this is Embark’s privacy statement says, “When you submit an application through Embark.com, you can be confident your information is safe and secure.” Even better, the site claims, “We use industry-standard efforts to safeguard the confidentiality of your personal information, such as firewalls and Secure Sockets Layers where appropriate,” and the whole mess is stamped with the trustee seal. What a joke.

It is this kind of sloppiness, this kind of stupid oversight that, as part of an endless parade of privacy violations, is eroding the value of e-commerce.

Gibbs is a contributing editor at Network World (US). He is at nwcolumn@gibbs.com.