Like most people I am uncomfortable by the online invasions of my privacy. It seems like every day there are articles telling me how the NSA or some large corporation is monitoring me and profiling me. It seems like we only have two options these days – become a Luddite and stay off the Internet, or take part in the modern world and have companies gather information about us.
The whole world is wrestling with this issue and Europe is ahead of us in trying to place some constraints on the data gathering. The European Union is putting a lot of pressure on the US government to create standards of personal privacy.
A few years ago the White House endorsed a list of rights that are known as the Consumer Privacy Bill or Rights. At the time this came out companies like Google, Microsoft, Yahoo and AOL agreed to support the ideas. These rights include:
- Individual Control: The right of individuals to exercise control over what personal data organizations collect from them and how they use it;
- Transparency: The right to expect easily understandable information about privacy and security practices;
- Focused Collection: The right to place reasonable limits on the personal data that organizations collect and retain;
- Accountability: The right to have personal data handled by organizations with appropriate measures in place to assure they adhere to the Bill of Rights.
But these principles have never been codified into law and so we still have no U.S. Privacy Bill or Rights. John Kerry and John McCain tried to get this passed into law in 2011, and Jay Rockefeller proposed similar legislation in 2013.
The industry has created a mechanism which could be used to implement a “Do Not Track’ process. A standard was developed that would put ‘DNT’ into the HTTP header field to notify that a user had opted out of being tracked. And some browsers like Firefox, Chrome, Safari and Opera all support this protocol and have implemented the Do Not Track header.
People want to opt out. About 14% of Foxfire users have enabled the Do Not Track feature. However, without a law to mandate its use, there is no compulsion for businesses to recognize and honor the request to opt out, so for now opting out is an empty gesture and nobody is honoring it. I’ve had offers from software companies trying to sell me software t,hat will stop me from being tracked. They know that the vast majority of Americans want that ability. But such software is vaporware until Google and the other companies that track information about us will honor a Do Not Track process.
I don’t know if I’m more uncomfortable with big business or the government tracking me. Like most Americans I have done nothing that should make me nervous about having the government look over my shoulder. But I also fully understand that knowledge is power and it would be too easy for somebody unscrupulous in the government to misuse that data. Go back and re-read George Orwell’s ‘1984’ if you want a reminder of what can happen with government gone awry. Look today how China and other countries monitor and control what can be seen on the Internet. Even Britain, who we think is like us is trying to stop people from seeing pornography.
Recent revelations about the way that the NSA spies on us revealed that the government has been tracking us using the same cookies and other tools that big business is using. So when a company puts a cookie on your machine it is enabling you being tracked by everybody who knows how to read that cookie.
I am cynical and my gut tells me that even should this law pass that the big companies and the government are going to keep tracking us anyway. It’s just too tempting to do so, and they both believe the benefit outweighs the risk of being caught. It would certainly be disingenuous for the government to ever prosecute a business for engaging in spying on us if the government is doing the same thing.