During the past decade the technological advancements of the Internet has significantly changed the method of communications and access to information for millions of users worldwide. First developed as a secure communications mode for the military during the height of the cold war era, the Internet has become as commonplace for Americans as the telephone or automobile. Users, provided that they have the necessary computer hardware and browser application as well as a network connection to the Internet are able to access and exchange information at speeds measured In thousandths of a second.
Each time a connection to the Internet is made, users risk compromising their privacy through many different channels, including Internet service providers, search engines and actual websites visited. As this vast communications medium continues to evolve, so have the threats to user’s privacy. Scores of Internet marketing conglomerates are covertly collecting valuable Information from users such as search engine results, websites visited, purchases made and often times the user’s email address.
Internet users unknowingly are leaving a trail of personal information and the statutes regulating arresting and or governmental entitles collection and dissemination of this data are Insufficient given today’s technological advances. Under current federal laws, the collection and distribution of data which identifies a specific users Internet activities is subject to regulation under the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (CPA), or the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act enacted in 1990 to protect the identity of children under the age of 13.
CPA was passed Into law In 1986 as an extension of existing regulations governing wiretapping of telephones and interception of postal mail by the US government. Privacy advocates note that privacy threats occur in part because legislative and regulatory policies generally seem to trail behind the capableness of emerging technologies” (Marshall 948). Most agree that this legislation, though sufficient at the time of enactment is seriously out of date given today’s cutting edge Internet data collection technologies.
On the other hand, entities that engage in data collection as well as law enforcement benefit from the ambiguities that the CPA presents and are not In favor of stronger privacy protection laws. With today’s technology, online marketing companies are routinely electing data regarding a user’s search engine queries, websites pages visited, advertisements viewed, purchases made, time of day and geographic location of the Internet connection. With this data, detailed profiles are created for use by on-line companies to produce and direct targeted advertising to the user.
Additionally, this data is often times sold off to firms which specialize in compiling user information from several sources. DRP. Joseph Throw, a noted Internet privacy expert and professor at the University of Pennsylvania Ennobler School for Communication In is Journal article “Americans and Online Privacy: The System Is Broken” cites a national survey “that the overwhelming majority of US adults who use the Internet at home have no clue about data flows – the invisible, cutting edge techniques whereby about them” ( par. ). List firms whose sole purpose is to compile bits and pieces of user data and create detailed profiles are abundant. The biggest link too profile is a users physical or email address typically supplied when signing up for something free or making a purchase on a website. Most adults who go online are unaware of he value to online marketing firms that this data carries. With this robust information, marketers are able to create detailed profiles based on user’s activities.
Privacy advocates, consumers as well as many legislators feel that this practice, known in the industry as behavioral advertising is discriminatory. Online companies are presenting advertisements or making offers to users based on the user’s history of Internet activities. A user that has a profile indicating that they typically seek out and purchase from discount websites such as Walter. Mom may not be extended the name advertisement or promotional opportunities as a user whose profile indicates that they seek out higher end websites such as narcissuses. Com. This practice may seem harmless enough at face value, however if a user were to seek out information regarding debt relief and provided their email address to the website as requirement to access or receive information there is a overwhelming probability that a profile would be created and flagged as someone who has credit challenges. O illustrate this example a step further, if this user were to be a candidate for employment in the financial sector and the potential employer ordered a background reach during which the candidate’s email address was matched to a previous profile that was created when they were searching for debt relief information, the resulting match might negatively impact employment opportunity.
Mark Rottenest, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center and Georgetown University Law Center professor stated during testimony to congress on the issue of Internet user privacy, “Users have little idea how much information is gathered, who has access to it or how it is used. The last point is critical because in the absence of legal rules, impasses that are gathering this data will be free to use it for whatever purpose they wish” (CTD. N Marshall 938). This type of data collection and information sharing could have long lasting and devastating implications for users for years. In addition to websites visited, search engines such as Google, MANS or Yahoo offer a substantial collection of user data. For every search engine query there is a digital road map created and stored by these companies, retaining this information anywhere from 90 days 18 months.
These companies are citing the need to do so to provide better service and avoid security threats. Additionally warns the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse in “Fact Sheet 18: Privacy and the Internet: Traveling in Cyberspace Safely’, if a individual uses one of the major email services such as Microsoft’s Hotmail as well as using Microsoft’s web browser, MANS, there is link made between the user’s email address and their browsing activities (4).
Privacy rights advocates are alarmed by the retention time periods, citing that these are excessive and increase the likelihood of government monitoring of user’s browsing activities. Google which in 2008 was the preferred search engine 82% of the time worldwide as successfully resisted subpoenas served by the Justice Department to force the disclosure of user searches (Marshall 943). Under pressure from privacy advocacy groups and constituents federal legislation to regulate the collection of personally throughout the past decade.
The online industry is utilizing more powerful tools to collect user information for targeted advertising and each of these laws introduced Nas intended to set a minimum federal privacy standard that websites, search engines and governmental agencies must adhere to. The first to do so was Democratic South Carolina Senator Ernest Holdings, Chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee. The Online Personal Privacy Act, introduced in 2002 proposed minimum standard that companies must adhere to addressing five basic issues: Notice, Consent, Access, Security and Enforcement.
As long as a website abides by their written policy, if they have one at all, regardless of how ambiguous it is they cannot be accused of deceptive business practices. Advertising executives are quick to counter the argument for additional legislation citing that the collection of marketing data is critical to attracting advertising dollars which in turn keeps the Internet a mostly no cost medium of information exchange for consumers.
Without advertising revenues, the Internet would not be nearly as robust as it is today, and industry leaders as well as lawmakers opposing additional regulations question how willing would consumers be to pay for content that is currently delivered free of charge. Further, the executives contend that users would do well to become more educated on privacy issues, utilize the privacy features of their web browser and avoid websites that have inadequate privacy policies.
As well, advertisers Justify targeted marketing as being able to present consumers with the best options that are suited to their tastes. In 2008 Congressional hearings ensued when Charter Communications, an Internet service provider (ISP) and Nebula an online marketing company announced their plans to step up analysis of their customer’s data. After lawmakers held numerous hearings on these practices, the companies abandoned their plans (Marshall 943). O date, with the exception of the passage of the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act no legislation specifically aimed at users’ Internet privacy has been enacted into law at the federal level. In the absence of substantial federal data collection legislation, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), the watchdog federal agency Charged with protecting consumer rights has worked with industry leaders to develop a set of self regulation data gathering practices. Basic privacy guidelines Nerve first established by the Network Advertising Initiative (ANA), a coalition formed by 12 leading companies in 1999.
The guidelines require members to adhere too set standard of disclosure and conduct such as posting a notice on their website informing users of the potential that advertisers may place a third party cookie, squiring websites to give users the opportunity to opt-out of the collection of personal information and refrain from merging any acquired user information with policies in December 2008 to address options for sensitive information, parental consent for children under the age of 13 and an annual compliance review (Marshall 346).
As e-commerce has grown, several additional privacy protection companies have come into existence, developed to implement a uniform set of standards for their members as relates to the collection of user’s identifiable information. Some of the well-known are: Trustee, EBB and Verging. Today, virtually all reputable websites carry a privacy seal of approval from one or more of these organizations (Fact Sheet 18). Senator Holdings in his 2002 address to the senate makes note of the efforts of industry leaders such as EarthLink, U-Haul, Intel and others that have developed strong pro-consumer privacy policies and abide by these practices.
Although there are forward thinking industry leaders that have made the commitment to protecting privacy, the Senator further states that “despite the best intentions and some successful efforts, reliance on self-regulation alone has not proven to provide sufficient protection” (par. ). In February 2009, the Federal Trade Commission issued Markings to Internet marketing companies that they are not adequately explaining their information gathering policies to users.
The agency continues to maintain that the Internet companies can self-regulate themselves, on the other hand, warned by commission member, Jon Leibniz as quoted in a New York Times article “Agency Skeptical of Internet Privacy Policies” “With this Congress there is not going to be a lot of patience for Big Brother Internet advertising without privacy protections. They invite legislation if they don’t do a good Job at self regulation” (Hansel, par. 3). It is evident by these hearings that the FTC is issuing a stern warning to the industry to improve their data collection privacy policies and practices or face potential legislative actions.
Privacy rights advocates contend that the USA Patriot Act, passed n the aftermath of the 9/1 1 terrorist attacks has weakened American’s protection from government monitoring or access to their communications records. According to Jay Stanley, director of public education for the American Civil Liberties Union the Patriot Act weakens the Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986 by permitting he Justice Department to issue national security letters to Internet service providers for disclosure of information versus having to obtain a warrant from a Judge which is most times required to tap a telephone line.
Stanley contends: Our courts have not kept up with technology and have not kept up with the needs of privacy. When the fourth amendment was written, most of people’s lives took place in the home. Your medical life, your correspondence, your financial records were in the home… But much of our lives are now stored on the servers of international corporations” (CTD. In Marshall 950). Stanley comments are particularly poignant given the number of sensitive financial, medical and other transactions that consumers are able to conduct using today’s Internet technology.
The privacy concerns of Americans as a result of passage of the USA Patriot Act could very well have been the theme for Dan renown’s fictional novel Digital Fortress were it not for the fact that the novel was Mitten three years prior to the 2001 terrorist attacks. In this thriller the author created Commander Tremor Stateroom as the National Security Agency’s Deputy Director of Operations. Stateroom and his staff of cryptography experts’ scope of Nor are to decode electronic messages that are intercepted by various US having the phones tapped and immediately embraced this new means of global communication.
Email had the security of conventional mail and the speed of the telephone” (Brown 25). The author sets the story line by explaining that several years before, privacy rights advocates including the Electronics Frontier Foundation were demanding that the government put forth an encryption formula which assured the public that various intelligence agencies would not have the ability to intercept and read private communications. Stateroom’s team was charged with the task to evolve such an encryption standard.
Determined in his certainty that the National Security Agency must maintain it’s superiority in monitoring electronic communications Stateroom wrote a back door into the code. After being released for public analysis, it was discovered that Stateroom had secretly altered the code, creating a monumental public outcry as well. With the potential release off new highly sophisticated encryption code written by a disgruntled former NSA employee, Stateroom seizes upon the opportunity to redeem himself and his career by another attempt to insert a backdoor code.
In order to be successful with this attempt he goes to great lengths submitting the code to the Ana’s most powerful code breaking computer only to discover that the code was a trick and actually Stateroom has introduced a virus that will destroy the entire national security databanks leaving the country exposed to waiting electronic terrorists. It is Just the type of super secret maneuvers as portrayed in Brown’s novel that have spurred the growth of privacy advocacy groups such as the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse based in San Diego, California.
Privacy Rights Clearinghouse is a non-profit organization with the goals of gassing consumer awareness, empowering consumers to take action and advocacy for consumer’s privacy rights in local, state and federal pubic policy hearings (Givens, par. L). There are several other privacy groups such as American Civil Liberties Union, Center for Democracy and Technology as well as the Electronic Frontier Foundation that advocate for individual’s right to privacy on the Internet (Fact Sheet 21-22).
Fundamentally all of these organizations feel that the 1986 Electronic Communications Privacy Act is ineffective in today’s technological landscape and stronger federal Internet privacy protections are long overdue. Many privacy foes contended that the lack of federal legislation regulating Internet privacy has much to do with the demographics of Congress. This is clearly pointed out in a Washington Post July 2008 article titled “Senate Grapples with Web Privacy Issues. Websites have been collecting user data and compiling detailed profiles for the better part of 10 years and as Senator Bill Nelson from Florida asked a question of a witness concerning Internet connections, the witness was so confused at the question that their response was “l think I’m not entirely sure of what you are suggesting, senator. To which the senator replied, “Nor am l” (Workhorse, par. 7). Typically members of Congress are upper middle aged and have not embraced technology to the extent that the younger generations have and find discussions regarding data flows, bits and bytes, and Sips a foreign language.
Although one senator did boast that he reads his hometown newspaper online. In recent years a new solution, Platform for Privacy Preference (POP) has been proposed to protect Internet user’s privacy automatically through machine readable privacy policies. It is the company’s website would automatically communicate to the user’s computer that he website meets the privacy policies that the user has pre-configured on their computer.
In a report published by the Electronic Privacy Information Center, aptly titled “Pretty Poor Privacy: An Assessment of POP and Internet Privacy’ the validity of Madders implementation of POP is seriously discredited. The center contends that POP is not an effective solution to on-line privacy concerns given that it is a “complex and confusing protocol that will make it more difficult for Internet users to protect their privacy’ (par. 1). POP is a very cumbersome application, which if not configured ropey will not only block access to legitimate websites but also quite possibly extend a sense of false security for users.
The Internet has dramatically changed the everyday lives of individuals throughout the globe. With the ever-evolving technology to exchange information instantaneously users are able to carry out many of the everyday tasks that previously required a visit to the bank, post office or library. However with all of the conveniences that this robust communication medium brings to our lives, come serious issues concerning safeguarding of users’ private information. There are numerous avenues that a users’ privacy can be compromised, and inevitably, one can not avoid disclosing a certain amount of data when using the Internet.
At issue is the absence of federal legislation regulating who, what and “here this information may be collected, assimilated and shared with various marketing organizations or governmental authorities. Prior to the advent of the Internet American’s personal matters such as financial records, health information, personal correspondence was stored in the home; it is there that Americans are afforded the privacy protections as set-forth in the constitution. With today’s technology, intimate details regarding our lives are stored on network servers not in the home.
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