E-Apocalypse now!

“On the Internet, every Web site we visit, every store we browse in, every magazine we skim – and the amount of time we skim it – create electronic footprints that can be traced back to us, revealing detailed patterns about our tastes, preferences, and intimate thoughts.” – Jeffrey Rosen, author of The Unwanted Gaze.

If the Information Age can lay claim to providing the world with an unrivalled medium in which to communicate so too must it bear the responsibility for eroding personal privacy and being the foundation for what is known as cybercrime.

Testament to that statement is the creation of the Privacy Center at the University of Denver (DU) in Colorado where research has begun on the subject of withering individual privacy on-line and how Web surfers can better protect themselves.

Founded on July 26 by the Privacy Foundation – a non-profit organization – the Privacy Center has already jumped headlong into researching software, communications technologies and Internet systems that systematically collect information on unsuspecting individuals through cookies, Web bugs and various surveillance tools.

“The tracking on e-commerce Web sites (of individual surfers) is an issue,” said Richard M. Smith, the Privacy Center’s chief technology officer and a world-renowned cyber-sleuth. “The way e-commerce Web sites sell themselves to Wall Street right now is by claiming they can personalize the purchasing experience for the user…that’s one advantage they say they have.”

Smith suggested Internet users may be wary of embracing e-commerce as shopping on-line can be akin to having an electronic pick-pocket artist snatch their identity while they shop. There are other factors slowing e-commerce too, but Smith said his primary concern of late revolves around the impact cell phones and Web-enabled mobile devices have on personal privacy.

“One area that’s extremely intrusive is the FCC’s (Federal Communications Commission in the U.S.) requirement for cell phone providers to be able to locate the position of any one of their clients in the event they dial 911 (a law which comes into effect in 2001),” he said. “That sounds great if you’re in an emergency situation, but when the e-marketers got wind of this they too thought it was great and started looking at offering goods based on your location.

“If cell phones send out information on where we’re at all the time, that’s a gross, intrusive invasion of privacy.”

On-line merchants such as Toys R Us and Amazon.com have recently been criticized for employing tactics which track every move made on their respective sites, and many consumers may be even more concerned when they can’t hide from the world for a few hours because their cell phone is tracking them.

Cutting both ways

Scott Schnell echoed Smith’s insights. The senior vice-president of marketing for Bedford, Mass.-based RSA Security Inc. said corporations and marketers must respect an individual’s right to be left alone, but he added that e-merchants may be feeling the sting of the privacy advocate backlash.

“Certain on-line merchants and data gathering organizations have suffered from a backlash but it was because they were not thoughtful in how they treated a user’s confidential data,” Schnell said. “It’s a double-edged sword, companies have access to user profile information and if it’s used to help a user wade through a sea of information that’s fine, but if it’s used for evil it can have a negative impact.”

RSA Security specializes in security options for e-merchants.

“Our business has grown 10-fold as a result of companies wanting to protect their data from being either counterfitted or stolen and used for illegal purposes,” he continued. “Distributed computing creates an incredible counterfitting risk.”

Though they may appear unrelated on the surface, the arguments surrounding personal privacy and e-commerce security are inherently joined at the hip. Any marketer in the know will say public perception is everything, and the nasty rap privacy is taking from corporations and government agencies of late does not help calm ever-cautious consumers.

For instance, litres of ink have been spilled on the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation’s contentious Carnivore software – an e-mail surveillance system running on the Windows NT operating system which scans and captures data packets as they travel through an ISP’s network. The U.S. Department of Justice has announced that a select number of researchers from hand-picked American universities will conduct a review of the surveillance system in an effort to determine whether or not Carnivore should have its teeth pulled. The FBI argued monitoring e-mail for law enforcement purposes is akin to tapping phone wires. Smith’s colleagues at DU are among the chosen few who will analyze Carnivore’s bite.

“Using e-mail is not the same as using the telephone,” Smith said. “It’s good outsiders are given the chance to see how Carnivore operates to ensure it’s not a sweeping operation.”

Closer to home, the Canadian government was recently blasted in the press after it was learned that the Human Resources and Development Canada Ministry had been compiling a secret database for unknown reasons on the private citizens it interacted with. With no apologies coming forth from Prime Minister Jean Chreti