Privacy Wanes in a Digital World

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Gun proponents like to say that guns don't kill people, people kill people. The point these folks are making is that the weapons are neutral -- humans determine whether the results are good, bad or mixed for society.


This shouldn't be forgotten when dealing with IT and telecommunications technology. A perfect case in point is Pudding Media's new service announced this week that offers free VoIP calling in exchange for the right to place ads on the user's screen. Those ads match the ongoing conversation against a database of keywords.


We'll be surprised if the model works out. The bigger point is that the service -- which, at the end of the day, seems creepy but innocuous -- is causing unease among many people because it so blithely uses powerful technology that cuts close to the heart of deeply felt privacy concerns. It's one thing to debate the limits of the government's right to use eavesdropping technology to fight terrorists or criminals. It's another to see a small company leverage the same sort of technology with such apparent ease, and to do so just to make a few bucks.


In a New York Times story on CNET about Pudding Media's move, Louise Story notes that Google can scrutinize Gmail users' e-mails. This Blogger News Network post illustrates the potential problems with this by quoting the Electronic Privacy Information Center. For one thing, people who aren't Gmail users -- such as people who send messages to folks who do use the service -- aren't agreeing to have their e-mails spied upon. EPIC also points out that Google uses cookies to track users in its main search-engine business as well as Gmail and Orkut, the social-networking site it owns. EPIC says Google claims not to create profiles on users of all three by combining the information gathered from the various services. EPIC suggests that Google's position could change.


EPIC might have been prescient. This TechCrunch post details what it says was a secret meeting held at Google to map out its strategy against Facebook. The piece claims that in November the company plans to launch a service that will use various pieces of data -- the story doesn't explicitly say the information is culled from cookies -- collected by Orkut and iGoogle for marketing and social-network creation. The program reportedly eventually will include data from other Google services and even third parties.


This makes Pudding Media look like a bunch of privacy zealots. Jack Shofield, a blogger at the Guardian, referenced the TechCrunch piece. His reaction:

Google would then be able to target its advertising even more accurately, because it could tie its cookie and ad-based Web-site tracking to your real identity.

Legal and ethical questions aside, users of modern digital telecommunications have to accept the reality that their privacy is eroding like a beach on Cape Cod during a nor'easter. There are an increasing number of tools able to observe and/or extract bits (and bytes) of digitized information.


For instance, Ponemon founder and chairman Larry Ponemon says that software from Vontu, Vericept and Code Green digs into the content of outgoing e-mails to make sure data is not leaving the enterprise against corporate policy. The stark reality is that these and other technologies are powerful today -- and have not come close to realizing their full potential.