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Digital Privacy A Shattered Utopia

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Recent reports of YouTube and Yahoo’s cooperation in providing private user data to third parties has drawn the attention and criticism of bloggers and information journalists alike. The question begins to arise: Just how private is your online life?

One of the notable draws of the Internet during its fledgling days was the notion of complete anonymity in the realm of cyberspace. The idea that an individual was afforded total privacy concerning his or her activities generated a significant amount of allure for most online enthusiasts.

However, the utopian ideal of digital ambiguity has been effectively reduced to a smoldering pile of rubble — demolished by the clockwork machine of industry and the iron fist of the bureaucrat.

Perhaps that analysis seems a bit melodramatic, but the inescapable truth is that every click, every keystroke, and every transmission made across the Internet is meticulously being tracked and stored for the sole purpose of identifying user activities and web trends.

Take, for example, the charges of copyright infringement brought by Paramount against YouTube user Chris Moukarbel. When subpoenaed by a San Francisco judge to turn over Mr. Mourkabel’s identity in reference to an allegedly copyrighted video clip, YouTube obligingly sang like a canary.

Additionally, Yahoo recently turned over data to the Chinese government that resulted in a 10-year prison sentence for Shi Tao, a Chinese man accused of e-mailing details of the Chinese government’s plans to handle news coverage of the 15th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre in 2004.

Companies such as Google, Yahoo, AOL, etc. house libraries upon libraries of personal data – demographic information, financial records, spending trends, search histories all neatly arranged in data centers across the United States.

Just how secure is all that data?

Think of this alarming comparison

Law enforcement officials are required to obtain a search warrant before they have the right to search an individual’s residence. The key in obtaining a search warrant is a little phrase known as probable cause.

Basically, authorities have to provide a judge with sufficient information to suggest that an individual is breaking the law in order to search that person’s residence.

Conversely, if a third party wants to obtain digital information about an individual, all that is required is a subpoena, or essentially saying, “I want that person’s information.”

The party requesting the information is under no obligation to establish probable cause in its efforts to obtain an individual’s digital records.

As would be expected, the vulnerability of personal user information has sparked a wave of near panic in many online communities. Many are outraged to discover that the “security and privacy” concerning their online activities is anything but secure and definitely not private.

Of course, it’s easy to define the problem. The more arduous task, however, is contriving a workable solution.

John Battelle offers up the idea of storing the data offshore:

Anyway, one idea that’s been bumping around my head a long time, and which I hope you all can help me think through, is the concept of what I’ll call the “Data Switzerland.” The concept is simple: why can’t companies that hold massive amounts of our personally identifying information – companies like Yahoo, AOL, Google, Verizon, etc – simply warehouse that information in a country that has consumer-friendly data privacy laws? Why can’t my search history, my particular entries in the database of intentions, my clickstreams, be housed in this Data Switzerland, if I so chose?


Perhaps storing data in an offshore repository would allow for a greater measure of security and privacy for the individual. The Swiss Bank Account has worked for those with wealth for years in providing a shelter for their money, why can’t it work with data as well?

Companies such as HavenCo are embracing this concept and looking to provide that means of offshore data storage.

However, there are those who feel that offshore storage alone is not sufficient.

Over at the Lifehacker blog, Google becomes the target of a poster’s ire. The writer feels that more user control regarding his or her stored data would be a step in the right direction. This is outlined in what the writer refers to as the Google Data Privacy Petition

GDP would allow me to review all of the information that Google retains on me across all services, from all devices, and from all sources. GDP would allow me to determine the maximum data retention period for each of my services. GDP would allow me to selectively opt out of cross-service data mining & correlation, even if it reduced the quality of the services I receive. GDP would allow me to correct any inaccurate data in my profile. And GDP would log and alert me when my data was queried by other services.


Other bloggers realize that this not just a problem in regards to Google. The writer at Fred’s House adds, “One point made in various places is that focusing on Google is too narrow; our personal information is held by dozens or hundreds of 3rd parties, mostly beyond our control. I agree, this is not just about about Google.”

The fact is that personal data and usage statistics are held by various companies, all of whom are just a subpoena away from handing it over to third parties. Will Google, Yahoo, AOL and others take steps to provide greater security and privacy regarding an individual’s online activities?

It seems that even when you’re on the Internet, big brother is still watching.

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Joe is a staff writer for WebProNews. Visit WebProNews for the latest ebusiness news.

Digital Privacy A Shattered Utopia
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