Putting profits before privacy

Plenty of conspiracy theories abound that paint a scenario of a supercomputer located somewhere in North America, constantly gathering and updating personal information about us. We're being watched from the minute we are born, to our childhood illnesses, where we went to school, and whether we still eat Weetbix and sugar - plus tonnes of other boring personal habits, such as credit history, speeding tickets and criminal records. Something from The X-files?

What we do know is that it is getting easier for anyone to collate personal information about us. From the string of 20 videos stores to which I belong, to the sites I surf to purchase books or CDs, I am leaving a trail of personal information. It may just be my e-mail address, or residential address and drivers licence - so what? On its own, this information may not amount to much, but when stores, online or otherwise, start collating this material, and perhaps even sharing it as a way of making money and personalising its marketing towards you, that's when privacy raises its head. Imagine popping into Coles, and having an assistant follow you around saying, "Do you want that recycled toilet paper this week, we have calculated that your household consumes an average of 20 sheets per week, calculated on a pack of six rolls…"Well, I think I know when I am out of loo paper. It would annoy the hell out of you - not to mention be very scary.

Now, with the rise of the Internet, the world has become a whole lot smaller. You can roam everywhere, gathering diverse information from travel destinations, visit political sites, fill in an online health check form, purchase some sports gear, even talk to the Pope. And while you may be thinking you are surfing anonymously - you probably aren't!

At press time the Federal Trade Commission in the US released a report which signalled a shift in the commission's stance towards Internet privacy. Previously, the FTC had pushed a model of voluntary self-regulation for the online community, but following a survey which was conducted earlier this year, and was designed to gauge the privacy practices of hundreds of leading sites including Amazon, Yahoo and EBay, the commission is now looking to introduce legislation in the US Congress.

So what did the survey uncover? That only 42 per cent of the 90 most popular Web sites that collect personal information adhere to the FTC's "fair information practice principles" of notice, choice, access, and security regarding the collection and use of personal data. And while the legislation will affect sites based in the US, the nature of the Internet at the moment means the majority of sites we surf to are governed by US laws - or rather, until now, the lack thereof.

Closer to home, Senator Richard Alston, Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts, earlier this year indicated (in an interview with ABC radio station Triple J) that he is aware of the issues of Internet privacy.

"Cookies . . . have [an] enormous capacity to track every Web site you ever visit," Alston commented. "…the idea that somehow every move you ever make is going to be known to someone is a matter of particular concern, and there ought to be informed consent, you ought to know what's going on, and therefore I think we will have to address that issue quite separately." Not much has happened yet.

But why sit back and wait for the regulation of Internet privacy? How effective will it be anyway, and how enforceable? It's a bit like leaving your house unlocked and assuming no one will rob you, and if they do, hey - the police will catch them. Yeah, right! Why not take action and make a choice about our personal levels of privacy online? Take a look at our special report this month on Internet privacy - it will make you think twice about what you say and do online. And if you are concerned - then PCW's Stealth Surfing tips will help you decide who knows your business online, and who doesn't.

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Amanda Conroy

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