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Privacy a Private or Public Matter:
How Commercial and Government Policies Violate Privacy
Talan Weaver
Academic affiliation: Oklahoma State University
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In recent years, the government along with the help of many online companies has been pushing harder and harder for bills that are extensively unpopular with the public. These bills would give them the ability to watch Internet users' activity on the World Wide Web. This would virtually remove what little privacy Americans still have on the Internet today. The government is trying to gain more power and the large corporations are trying to make money, both of which are cases where we as consumers and citizens get the worse end of the deal. E-commerce companies and the government should not have the ability to watch Internet clients' movements or access information on the World Wide Web without a warrant.

Before a person can understand or grasp why this issue of privacy is such a problem, they have to understand what Internet privacy is and how their activities on the Internet are effecting how much information they give away. Internet privacy can be interpreted many ways. The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, or OECD, gathered a group of experts in the field of internet security and privacy, to illustrate privacy policy. They defined privacy through sets of guidelines. Those guidelines are "Collection Limitation, Data Quality, Purpose Specification, Use Limitation, Security Safeguards, and Openness" (7). Essentially how they collect the data, where they collect it, and what the user is willing to allow them to collect. Whether they are applying for a mortgage or downloading songs, the government now has the ability to track your movements. In the past, the American government has "[worked] to ensure that personal data was protected on the Internet, not to mention in the vast corporate bins" (Harvey 2). In 2001, the world trade towers fell victim to terrorism, and in the fury and panic that followed the event the government has been slowly but surely moving in on our electronic territory trying to eventually to play God on the information highway. "The post-9/11 political climate has seen the inception of sweeping new 'anti-terrorism' powers for many western governments, and most of these powers focus on control of information" (Harvey 2). All of a sudden, the government decided that they should have free rein over anyone's computer which they so chose. This is a severe breach of any individual's privacy and it is an extremely appalling gesture by the government, whose job is to serve and protect its citizens, not watch or spy on them for no apparent reason. These government ideals for Internet tracking use to be more innocent in their purpose.

Pre-9/11 actions, the government would need some sort of warrant to look at what someone is using their Internet connection for. It is understandable if someone is suspected of terrorist activity to watch or track their e-mails and what sites they visit, but for that the government needs issue a search warrant, instead of just looking when ever they feel the need to. With the new set of laws put into place by the U.S. government, they can watch the user's every click leaving him defenseless to their ever seeing eye. This is the equivalent to having an FBI agent following a person to work, home the grocery store, their friends house, and even riding in the car with them to each place. That may sound a little extreme, but that is exactly what the government is doing on the Web. At this point in time there are only two ways a person can remove themself from this invasion of privacy. First, which is the more difficult way, a person must become president or an extremely high ranking officer in the government, because their Internet activity is kept secret. Considering that there are not many high ranked government official jobs out there this one may be unlikely. Second, a person could just stop using the internet. Although this option may sound simple, the Internet has become an essential item for everyday life now. It actually costs more now to file taxes the old fashion way through snail mail than it does on the Internet. The government gives special incentives to people who file on the Internet.

Another source of privacy being violated would be different web sites privacy policies. Every major company on the web has some sort of privacy guarantee to their users. Whether that privacy allows the selling personal information gathered on their website or not, that certain sites policy will state it. Scott Granneman describes them as ". . . statements made by the owners of the Web site stating what will and will not be done with the personal information that users disclose when visiting that site" (4). However, many web sites keep the definitions of their policy in such a way, that it takes a lawyer to interpret and understand what exactly the policy says. It is for this reason that most people skip the privacy policy and go straight to operating the Web site. Granneman states that if a user wants to ". . . reduce the amount of your personal information that is sold to on-line advertisers - if you want, in other words, to lessen the data that marketers gather about you - you need to read the privacy policies on the Web sites you visit" (4). Also, Companies will leave their policy open, by that it is meant that they can change their policy at anytime without notifying the user of the change. Amazon.com just recently did this to its users. For many years its privacy policy stated that the information gathered on their Web site would be used for their studies only, and would in no way give the information away. In 2000, they changed the policy to say that any information ever gathered on there Web site could be used in any way they so chose. Thus, they sold all the information they had collected and still sell information gathered. A user must watch for these changes in a Web site's policy if they want to keep their privacy.

A person never wants to get too comfortable with a website. That website's policies can be changed at any time, like AOL Time Warner's did in 2000. They pulled virtually the same trick Amazon.com did, but not to such an extreme. Another deceitful organization would be TRUSTe. TRUSTe is a company that is designed to watch websites, and make sure that the websites baring its emblem are following the rules covered in its privacy policies. There is only one problem with this company; it does not actually do anything. This "paper tiger," says Granneman, ". . . time and time again has done nothing when its clients do things that are damaging to the privacy of their users" (5). Since they have started business, Granneman says, TRUSTe has not removed their emblem from anyone's Web site that has continued to pay for that emblem. In conclusion Granneman said, "TRUSTe can't be trusted" (5). This is precisely the reason a user should not get too comfortable with a Web site, because the Web site might turn on them or be untrustworthy in the first place.

Many Websites use a back door to allow a person's information to be put on the Web. They use opt-out policies, which require that a person has to find the website that is displaying their information and request that website to stop posting that information. This works really well for many companies, because large amounts of users have no idea where all their information is being displayed. Google is among one of the larger companies that uses this sort of opt-out policy. They use gathered information to make a reverse telephone directory, where the user types in a phone number and Google prints out the "[t]he address of the owner of that phone number [which is] displayed with their name, and beside the address appears links that will . . . provide detailed and precisely accurate directions that will allow the user to drive directly to their home" (Valentine 1). Privacy policies are definitely a major leak of information on the part of many Internet users. Most independent Internet users do not realize these breaches in their personal lives, and continue to go about their business unaware of what they are allowing it to happen to them on a daily basis. Opt-out policies are unfair and Internet sites should not be allowed to use them in the future, due to the fact that many users are unknowing of what sites contain their information, because the site did not ask to use the information.

Something that makes no sense is why "the vast majority of American Internet users want the privacy playing field tilted towards them and away from online companies," and we, as a country, have not received this right (Carter 2). America is a democracy, so the government is supposed to be working for us. The government fails us here by not supporting us with protecting laws and regulations. The problem is not that the companies have American's information. In short, Americans are mad, because those companies did not ask for the personal information. They just took it in a devious and underhanded way. There are ways for companies to compromise. For example, "86% of Internet users are in favor of "opt-in" privacy policies," which would require the company to ask to use the Internet users' personal information (Carter 2). This does not hurt the company, but it does give the user a better feeling about the company they are working with and their privacy is at a point they are comfortable with. Companies who change their privacy policies, breaking their promise to their user should watch out, 94% of Internet users want privacy violators disciplined. If an Internet company violated its stated privacy policy and used personal information in ways that it said it wouldn't, 11% of Internet users says the company's owner should be sent to prison; 27% says the owner should be fined; 26% say the site should be shut down; 30% say the web site should be placed on a list of fraudulent Web sites. (Carter 3)

Hopefully, eventually, the government will catch on to the thought that most Americans want there to be some sort of punishment for breaking these privacy policies. Whether a person is an avid Internet goer or not, this problem continues to be a nuisance that has gone on without any government enforcement.

Something the government does have laws for would be the privacy of medical information, but just like other things, the government lacks in the area of enforcement. Mark Graber had this to say: "Although the US government insists on the privacy of medical records, such privacy is breached regularly" (Graber 80). In Graber's article he gives the example of a time when a list of Prozac patients were emailed across the Internet without encryption, and the email was read by several people and the list was posted on a Web site. The moral of the story is always encrypt an email before sending it across the World Wide Web. Otherwise, someone might have even more of that person's personal information, making their private life more of a public matter.

Some people do believe that the government and these companies have good reason to be violating our privacy. Government officials believe that they need to have access to our internet files, because that is one way the catch terrorist. The only reason they could get bills that violate our privacy in this way to pass without an outrage in the general public was to pass it immediately after the events of September 11, 2003, because the country was in shock and panicked. "And a post World Trade Center terrorism Office of Homeland Security combined with "anti-terrorism" legislation like h.r. 3162 casts even more shrouds over the future of our personal liberty and Bill of Rights" (Leventhal 1). As far as companies are concerned, they deserve to use this data in any way they choose, because it was gathered on their Web site. That is fine, but many of those companies are not just gathering information entered on their Web site. They insert "cookies" on people's computers without the knowledge of the computer's owner. These cookies are a type of spyware that watches the user's movements on the net, and then reports it to the original Web site. They are downloaded by the user immediately after the site is accessed. The user is not prompted to find out if he wants this download to occur. It just happens. Companies know that many Internet users are not knowledgeable in their tracking techniques, and the companies use this ignorance against the user.

The reason the government wants to watch Internet activity is because they fear what happens on it. The government realizes that the Internet is so powerful that they can hardly regulate it. As a result they have stopped trying to regulate it and now they watch it. Every move made on it is watched like a hawk. According to Michael G. Leventhal, editor of DOJGov.net, eventually the Internet will beyond their watch-ability, and they will try to destroy it. He states "the internet -- the last bastion of free speech and communication -- will be taxed and regulated into submission in the interests of 'battling terrorism' or 'saving the children' or 'fighting drugs" (1). If he is right, when the government can not watch what we as users are doing on the Internet they will try to crush it the way they attempted to crush the tobacco industry. Leventhal is somewhat of an extremist, but none the less his opinion should be considered. The government has much to fear on the Internet, thus they would prefer to violate our activity to ease their nerves. There is no other reason for them to need this security procedure.

Commercial Web sites have much to benefit from viewing their user's Web site visits, but they all lead to the all mighty dollar. As I said before, companies will do anything for money, and that includes spying on its customers. A person would think that users would get aggravated at companies that do this. The problem is Internet users either do not realize this is happening or they do not know which Web sites are doing the spying. Commercial Web sites take full advantage of their opportunity and take the users name and email address at the least if not a whole load of information about where the user has gone on the Internet.

Many Americans do not realize the ease with which a computer is analyzed by a web site. A Web site can find out virtually anything about the computer being used. If this sounds too unbelievable visit privacy.net. This Web site will tell the user their IP address, ISP, CPU type, and even screen size without the user typing a single character into the Web site. This is only one Web site visited imagine how many Web sites a person visits every time they get on a Web page. Only about "6.6% of [Web] sites collects. . .personal information" (Culnan 6). The most common type of information taken by Web sites according to Mary J. Culnan, a professor at McDonough School of Business, would be number one, email address and two, name. Most Web sites get email addresses, so they can sell them to mass email solicitors. What these companies do is buy a list of email address collected on a certain Web site and then send emails to all of them trying to sell their product or promote their Web site, in other word junk mail. Although those were the most commonly taken information, the average amount of information taken by one Web site was 3.66 different types (Culnan 13). As this shows virtually all Web sites takes at least one thing from their user. Users have to be extremely careful while surfing the World Wide Web if the want to keep any or all of there information private.

In the end, one must ask the questions: how did this method of stealing people's information become standard for E-commerce, and when will its stop? Those questions can be answered very simply. This stealing of information became a standard, because of society's greed for the almighty dollar. If they can make money off of something they will do everything in their power to get a hold of it. In this case, that requires them to steal information from people who are too trusting of them and other websites. The second question, when will it stop, can be answered with this. The only way to get something done is to do it yourself. It will not stop until someone stands up and fights for his or her rights to e-privacy. People perception of what e-privacy is today is extremely distorted. The ignorance of these people is the reason nothing is being done about this injustice. This injustice is the government and companies on the World Wide Web that watch and track user's movements and record what is typed on their on or in their Web space. E-commerce companies and the government should not have the ability to watch Internet clients' movements or access information on the World Wide Web without a warrant.

Works Cited

Carter, C. Fox, S. Horrigan, J. Lernhart, A. Rainie, L. "Trust and Privacy Online: Why Americans Want to Rewrite the Rules." The Internet Life Report (2000): 1-28. 4 Oct. 2003

Culnan, Mary J. "Georgetown Internet Privacy Policy Survey: Report to the Federal Trade Commission." (1999): 23 Nov. 2003 http://www.msb.edu/faculty/culnanm/gippshome.html

Graber, Mark A. "Surf's Up! Protecting the Privacy of Health Information on the Internet: We Need New Privacy Laws and Better Encryption of Information." Western Journal of Medicine 176.2 (2002): 79-81.

Grannemen, Scott. "Securing Privacy Part Four: Internet Issues." Security Focus 4 (2002): 4 Oct. 2003 http://www.securityfocus.com/infocus/1585

Harvey, Greg "Big Brother is Watching Us All." Sitepoint (2003): 7 Oct. 2003 http://www.sitepoint.com/print/1154

Leventhal, Michael G. "Red Dawn." USDOJ & Government Watch. (2003): 24 Nov. 2003 http://www.DOJGov.net

"Privacy Guidelines in the Electronic Environment: Focus on the Internet" OECD Working Papers 4 (1998): 1-39.

Valentine, Mike Banks "We Know Where You Live - The Death of Privacy Online." Sitepoint. (2003): 7 Oct. 2003 http:// www.sitepoint.com/print/1146

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