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Internet Privacy in the 21st century

written by: Charles M Bowen•edited by: Aaron R.•updated: 6/17/2011

The Internet and personal computers not only give consumers a vastly increased opportunity to obtain knowledge, but they also offer other forces a means to glean all sorts of personal data. Hackers routinely target companies to steal mass data sets. Learn how to protect your privacy with these tips.

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    Ethical Arguments for Internet Privacy

    Internet Privacy - Maintaining Your Privacy Gets Harder Each Day In today's world, the rights of the individual are increasingly subject to the power of groups. The natural desire to keep one's affairs private is beset on all sides by ever more intrusive technologies and methods to glean information, with motives ranging from innocuous innovations, such as marketing and sales, to the downright sinister use of surveillance technologies by police states throughout the world in the name of "security." If the trend continues unchecked, individuals in the next generation will have no personal comprehension of privacy in the way it was understood in the pre-information age.

    Privacy is best defined as the state of being free from unsanctioned intrusion. However, surveillance techniques used by the state, as well as private firms, are often more about control than security. There are several salient points regarding this dilemma. The potential for misuse of emergent technologies by both governments and firms, and the potential for ever-tighter monitoring techniques to stifle creativity and innovation, may leave tomorrow's citizens in an inescapable world of constant surveillance. The ethical question is where do the rights of the individual become superseded by those of collective entities. Analyzing the ethics of Internet privacy reveals that there is a point when violations of this right obviously must be sanctioned. If the only way to keep a nuclear bomb from annihilating a city was to spy on the suspected terrorist's grandmother's emails for a week, the end could be said to justify the means. Therefore, if there is a legitiamate reason, where the good of the many outweighs the rights of the individual, a sanctioned intrusion on a person's privacy does qualify as ethical. It's obviously a hard line to draw in reality though.

    For the other side, note that the new economy, in which data is a valuable asset, is susceptible to major security breaches. The damage identity theft can do to its victims currently far outweighs the penalties mandated for losing it. Firms reliant on vast data sets must improve their data security or risk a consumer backlash that could lead to severe restrictions on their activities.

    Changes in storage may be the most important issue. In the 20th century, it was simply not possible to build a comprehensive, manageable database when the only means of extracting information was face-to-face contact and furtively searching for incriminating, often well-hidden, physical documents. In addition, when the filing cabinet was the only means of storage, documents outlining the opinions and habits of a group of a million people would have filled many rooms. Today a single laptop could hold a similar data set and pull up the desired information within moments. The spread of data collection has as much to do with mission creep as with governments' and corporations' instinctive desire to know as much as possible. Since this imperative focuses on the interests of a few (a corporate board, a ruling elite, etc.) it does not qualify as ethical.

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    How It Affects You

    Unsavory authoritarian regimes do not by any means have a monopoly on logging online activity. In 2005, Mark Klein, a former AT&T employee revealed the functions of the now infamous Room 641 A in AT&T's San Francisco switching center. Shortly after the 9/11 attacks, he was ordered to install data ''splitters'' (Essentially, chips that duplicate fiber-optic cable signals off the wires they are connected too) on AT&T's fiber-optic network that connected directly to the National Security Agency. While the government claimed the splitters were only eavesdropping on suspected terrorists, Klein testified that the system consisted of simple, dumb splitters incapable of any kind of contextual filtering: essentially, room 641A received “a duplicate of every fiber-optic signal routed through [AT&T’s] facilities." It is important to note that what actually went on inside secure room 641A, what was actually being done with the data that it was fed, has yet to be discovered. However, the room contained several racks of equipment fine tuned for data mining, including a Narus STA 6400, a device designed specifically for analysing Internet communications “at very high speeds." The equipment installed here certainly had the capability to store a duplicate of every bit of information that passed through it.

    Governments are not alone in seeking to glean data. Companies and scammers alike will try to sneak spyware into your PC to get an idea of your browsing habits. For companies, this is only to get an idea of your interests to better target advertising on you. If you use Gmail, you will notice that the ads that appear on the rights are strangely relevant to recent searches you have made or, more ominously, emails you have received. In 2005, Google's user profiles, which give it such relevent ad targeting ability, were subject to an attempt by the federal government to access them, ostensibly for the purposes of enforcing the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA). To date, Goggle has resisted all court orders and injunctions to hand over the data. Corporate means of data collection are an ethical gray area. While legally, they can claim to be behaving ethically because all users have agreed to the ''terms of service'', legal coverage does not make it right.

    Internet scammers get in on the act by using phishing techniques to get personal information. Consumers are often presented with contact sheets. Unless a consumer enters their credit card data, generally the worst you can expect is a load of spam. At worst, your financial data could finance a crook's shopping spree.

    Maintaining privacy is largely a matter of keeping strong passwords on as many programs as possible, avoiding public Internet connections, performing regular security scans and making a habit of deleting browsing history. This is very important for companies. Because all companies store data from past customers, the loss of such data discredits them with consumers. Strong firewalls are a must, both for consumers wishing to keep their personal data secure, and for companies wishing to preserve the integrity of their databases.