Online privacy

30 Mar Online privacy

Financial Times, By Maija Palmer, March 27, 2009

Privacy activists have had a busy few weeks. First there was Google’s announcement that it would start using behavioural targeting for its display advertising, which had them up in arms. The following week Google launched Street View, the controversial 3D mapping feature, in the UK, again drawing protest. The latest concern is over revelations that the UK government is thinking of monitoring social networking sites, such as Facebook, MySpace and Bebo, as part of its anti-terrorism measures. There is already an EU directive on monitoring e-mails and internet usage, requiring internet service providers to store traffic data for 12 months. Since July 2005, the UK government has been keen to broaden the scope of the ways it can monitor for terrorists. This latest proposal is to extend this to social networking sites, which have become hugely popular after the proposals were first formulated. Facebook is nervous and has said it may lobby the government against the plans. It argues that privacy is one of the things that its users value. There is a terrific schizophrenia going on with both companies and the government. Internet companies would like to monitor their users and use the data to sell advertising, but they hate the idea of the government forcing them to monitor users and hand over the data. The data- protection part of the government is keen that companies are not retaining too much information on citizens, while the counter-terrorism units of government want more data to be kept and for longer. Underneath these individual privacy stories is a huge, shifting debate on privacy issues. It has always been possible to collect information on people, but it has been difficult and limited in scope. The internet has given us the ability to amass an unprecedented amount of information about a huge number of people, very quickly and easily. We have never had this much information on this many people at our fingertips before. Now, we need to figure out what the rules will be on this information – who can access it, how long they can have it, what they can use it for, and how much control individuals should have over the data being kept on them. The guidelines are being debated and redefined as we speak. The challenge is to get appropriate rules in place now, because as we connect more and more devices to the internet, and transact more and more of our business online, it will only get harder to put any abuses right.