Getting to know you

Print edition : May 13, 2000

The Internet, privacy and the implications of surveillance.

THROUGHOUT history, knowledge has meant power, and how knowledge resources have been shared, distributed or monopolised has told us much about the nature of the societies in which these have occurred. But the brave new post-Internet world is changing man y of the presumptions and rules which allowed knowledge to be controlled earlier.

By opening up vast areas of communication and permitting the sharing of information even by those not "authorised" to do so, or between those who may never meet in any other sense, it is permitting a new proliferation of both knowledge and information th at was unprecedented earlier. But the current freedoms in cyberspace are already being subjected to new forms of control, and how it will finally end up is still anybody's guess.

At the same time, even as those people who are fortunate enough to be "connected" - still very much a small minority of the world's population - have instantaneous access to all kinds of information, they in turn are revealing more about themselves than they know. For many in the developing world, the problem is already so acute that there are citizens' movements trying to control it, as the most intimate details of their existence are tracked and stored as data, to be used whenever it suits those who h ave this data.

These Orwellian Big Brothers at present are not all-controlling states determined to define and regulate their hapless subjects, but large private corporations which seek to use such data in their advertising campaigns, or to influence consumer choices i n other ways. This is not to say that they do not also try to define and regulate people, or that states will not eventually also use such information for control. But the driving force currently is private profit rather than state oppression, the need i s for insidious influence rather than overt control.

In countries of the developed West, there is already a major concern about individual privacy, as it becomes apparent that both employers and omniscient web sites and advertising networks can track every move that is made in cyberspace.

A survey of nearly a thousand large companies conducted last year by the American Management Association found that nearly half of them monitored the e-mail, computer files or phone calls of their workers. There are computer software packages that can mo nitor and record every keystroke on the computer, screen all incoming and outgoing e-mail for certain keywords and can forward suspicious messages to a supervisor for review. E-mail can be resurrected from computer hard drives even after it has ostensibl y been deleted. And employers are increasingly monitoring jokes and e-mail sent from home as well as work over company servers.

But the most graphic example of the faceless company picking up detailed private information is in the case of DoubleClick Inc., which is the Internet's largest advertising company. For several years now, DoubleClick has been compiling detailed informati on on the browsing habits of millions of web users by placing "cookie" files on hard drives. Cookies are electronic footprints that allow web sites and advertising networks to monitor online movements, including information such as the search terms that are entered as well as the articles that are skimmed and how long they are skimmed for.

This had allowed DoubleClick to help its 2,500 clients to work out what kind of targeted advertising to provide to each individual surfer who visits their particular web sites. Thus, if you have been visiting a lot of music sites, ads for music will domi nate when you click on a search engine like AltaVista. Similarly, if your apparent interest is in cars, then a new model from Ford may greet you on the home page of some other web site.

All this seemed quite harmless, even more efficient and advantageous, as long as users were confident that their virtual identities were not being traced to their actual identities. However, in November 1999, DoubleClick bought Abacus Direct, which is a database of names, addresses and information about off-line buying habits of 90 million households, compiled from the largest direct mail catalogues and retailers in the nation. Then, in January 2000, DoubleClick began compiling profiles linking individu als' actual names and addresses to Abacus' detailed records of their online and off-line purchases.

At a 'cyber cafe' in Bangalore. People who are fortunate enough to be 'connected' have instantaneous access to all kinds of information but they, in turn, are revealing more about themselves than they know.-KIRAN PRASAD

This naturally meant that apparently "anonymous" online shopping was effectively being archived in personally identifiable dossiers. But it also meant that all the Internet-related activities of that person were now known, from personal e-mail to all the sites visited. This led to substantial pressure from privacy advocates (inevitably Internet-based!) as well as from investors. As a result, DoubleClick has recently announced that it will postpone its profiling scheme until the United States gov ernment and the e-commerce industry agree on privacy standards.

But this is of course only one of the many such schemes that are now delving more and more into various details of personal existence, for a varied range of reasons. Such schemes are assisted by new technologies that allow for ever more prying into the l ives of the connected. Thus, Globally Unique Identifiers, or GUIDs, are making it possible to link every document that is created by one user with the messages he/she e-mails, the chats that are posted and the various web sites that are browsed. These GU IDs then becomes a kind of serial number that can be linked with the name and e-mail address whenever that user registers online for a product or service. Some observers envisage that soon, all documents created electronically may have invisible markings that could be traced back to the author or recipient.

Sometimes, of course, the fallout can be disastrous for the hapless user, as in the famous case of the (previously) much-respected Dean of the Harvard Divinity School, who was forced to step down in 1998 for downloading pornography on his home computer. But there are other problems even for those who do not have to contend with such extremes in their personal existence.

This is pointed out in a new book by Jeffrey Rosen (The Unwanted Gaze: The destruction of privacy in America, New York: Random House, 2000). His defence of privacy is based on the shallowness of the new forms of human interaction in cyberspace. "P rivacy protects us from being misdefined and judged out of context. This protection is especially important in a world of short attention spans, a world in which information can easily be confused with knowledge. When intimate personal information circul ates among a small group of people who know you well, its significance can be weighed against other aspects of your personality and character... Your public identity may be distorted by fragments of information that have little to do with how you define yourself. In a world where citizens are bombarded with information, people form impressions quickly, based on sound bites, and these brief impressions tend to oversimplify and misrepresent our complicated and often contradictory characters."

Similarly, in Database Nation: The Death of Privacy in the 21st Century, Simson Garfinkle details the insidious threats to privacy that arise from the Internet, from public and private surveillance cameras, from biometric devices and medical techn ology, from spy satellites and computer chips, and, above all, from the unrestrained gathering and unauthorised sharing of personal information through computer databases. Garfinkle argues that the main threat to privacy does not come from Orwellian tota litarian states but from commercial interests.

Garfinkle begins by arguing that "technology by itself doesn't violate our privacy or anything else; it's the people using this technology and the policies they carry out that create the violations." But he ends by arguing that the "technology is neutral " argument is wrong. "History is replete with the dehumanising effects of technology. By its very nature, technology is intrusive." This argument is reinforced by the statement of Scott McNealy, Chief Executive Officer of Sun Microsystems, one of those i n the vanguard of this new technology. His cheerful response to a question at a product show introducing a new interactive technology called Jini, was "You already have zero privacy - get over it."

All this may sound unduly alarmist, especially as it could be argued that, just as technology can be developed to invade privacy, so also it can be encouraged to protect it. But the chilling thought does remain, that while snooping is clearly profitable for employers, advertisers and others who want to control, protecting privacy is much less so. This being the case, it is not difficult to see which sorts of technology will get more support.

This is what has led to the fear being expressed that more and more people will effectively end up under constant surveillance like the dehumanised hero of the Hollywood film The Truman Show, a character who has been placed on an elaborate stage s et without his knowledge or consent and whose every move, as he interacts with the actors who have been hired to play his friends and family, is broadcast by hidden video cameras. Even Orwell would be taken aback.

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