Selling privacy as a commodity
© Copyright 1994-2002, Rishab Aiyer Ghosh. All rights reserved.
Electric Dreams #35

It was once said that you should never post publicly to cyberspace what you don't want to see in tomorrow's newspapers. While newspapers are rarely interested in your idle thoughts, others are. Future employers, advertisers and an army of 'user profilers' have begun to exploit the availability of huge data banks of Net traffic, just waiting to be indexed by your names and opinions.

It is already possible to buy CD-ROM or tape archives of posts to newsgroups on the Internet. Collecting newsgroup posts as they arrive is trivial. Apart from ordinary Internet connections, all newsgroups are available on one- way, open-access satellite data broadcasts. As traffic flows in, it can be indexed and backed up on extremely cheap storage media such as Digital Audio Tape, for later search and retrieval.

While the US National Security Agency is naturally one of the best at hunting for signs of incorrect thinking in cyberspace, several techniques to search large volumes of data by very flexible criteria are publicly available. Electronic writing is one of the best sources for employers to learn the views of prospective employees. The groups people participate in can also form useful inputs to consumer profiles. Some companies have already started offering directory services based on posts to USENET, the semi-official collection of major newsgroups. It is easy to imagine Profiles-R-Us shops that sell dossiers on any individual, detailing political, religious and sexual preferences, and other interesting tidbits - all the nasty things you ever said about Microsoft, for instance!

Public discussion is of course just that, and it's ridiculous to attempt to prevent it being put to use for purposes not originally intended. The remedy to an invasion is to build walls; when the invasion is one of privacy, the walls are technological. Some pioneers are already protecting themselves through the use of encryption, digital signatures, and multiple pseudonyms - making it impossible for profilers to associate opinions with real people.

In a way, the Invasion Of The Profilers is a good thing - it will make individuals realize what little privacy they have, and teach them the value of privacy. Not everyone will want to seal themselves in private cocoons. Most will not object to some loss of privacy, but in exchange for a (not necessarily monetary) share of the profilers' profits. Individuals will control their privacy and selectively reduce it when it benefits themselves.

A particularly useful application of this is in an electronic public library. Once access to data is severely restricted to protect intellectual property rights, the Internet as a source of knowledge for everyone will die, unless libraries are opened to provide information free of cost. Such libraries need not survive on subsidies; rather, they can ask for a copy of any information base in cyberspace from all publishers. By limiting access to individuals who are willing to give up some privacy, the library and publishers will benefit from the sale of users' access records to advertisers. Advertisers will be delighted, as most other inputs for profiling in a privacy- aware society will be unavailable. Finally, users will get free access to information if they so choose, at a cost that they can agree to.

While one can be frightened by the ease with which a multitude of Big Brothers can monitor the citizens of cyberspace, technology, as always, has something for everyone. As it becomes easier to search through electronic communications, it also becomes easier to protect privacy to varying degrees. Individuals will be forced to be aware of risks to their privacy. With the opening of markets for profiles, privacy may finally find a concrete value.

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