The following text is copyright 2008 by Network World, permission is hearby given for reproduction, as long as attribution is given and this notice is included.
Bleak prospects for privacy
By: Scott Bradner
While web surfing the other day I ran across a reference to a story in the Times (London Times that is) on-line website that reported that two shopping malls in England now individually track everyone who walks into their environs (as long as they have a cell phone that is turned on). (http://technology.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/tech_and_web/article3945496.ece) This seems to me to be about the ideal example of modern society -- a society in which someone who thinks that some privacy might be nice is starting to be seen as quaint and more than a bit out of touch.
Many people wag their fingers at China's pervasive surveillance of its citizens ( See, for example, China's All-Seeing Eye http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/story/20797485/chinas_allseeing_eye/print.) but that is hardly the only example of governments watching their people. Governments the world over are moving towards a future not only in which Mr. Charrington in his junk shop will be the norm -- but also one where Mr. Charrington will not have to guess what you have been up to.
Even where there is supposed to be a basic rule that government has to have a real reason before it can find out your every move (e.g., the Fourth Amendment in the US) people who work for government want badly to ignore it. (See, for example "NSA Must Examine All Internet Traffic to Prevent Cyber Nine-Eleven, Top Spy Says" http://blog.wired.com/27bstroke6/2008/01/feds-must-exami.html and "Report: Government's Cyber Security Plan Is Riddled With New Spying Programs" http://blog.wired.com/27bstroke6/2008/05/senate-report-g.html.) Then there is the desire of some ostensibly well meaning folk to figure out how to control the entire electronic world (See Air Force Aims for 'Full Control' of 'Any and All' Computers - http://blog.wired.com/defense/2008/05/air-force-mater.html.) without realizing that if they can do so it will only be proof to the bad guys that it can be done. It would not be long before the bad guys found the same security holes and the government computers would befall the same fate.
Its not only governments -- as I've written before Google (or your own favorite search engine company) already knows far more about you than even you do. (See Telling Google and others to do less evil - http://www.networkworld.com/columnists/2008/041508-bradner.html.) Just last week stories started popping up about ISPs starting to use web surfing monitors to better provide ads they might be interested in to their customers -- i.e., ads that are more likely to get the customer to buy something they likely did not need in the first place. (See US Reps Markey, Barton Question Charter About Web Tracking - http://money.cnn.com/news/newsfeeds/articles/djf500/200805161655DOWJONESDJONLINE000786_FORTUNE5.htm)
The two companies producing the technology to do this that are showing up in news articles to do this are NeubAd (http://www.nebuad.com/providers/providers.php) and Phorm (http://www.phorm.com/). I wrote about NeubAd a while back. (See A semi-visible semi-abomination - http://www.networkworld.com/columnists/2007/073107-bradner.html.) Both of these companies claim to not save anything that can identify specific users but minor tweaks to their software would fit right into the future that NSA director Michael McConnell would like to see. They both also appear to use cookie-based opt-out mechanisms that do not work at all for people who are in a habit of regularly removing cookies.
Maybe we do not, or will not, have any privacy but that does not mean that the world will actually be safer -- it will just be a lot colder (in spite of global warming)
For those who do not recall Mr. Charrington, try Google (and add a little to their recording of your life).
disclaimer: The above rant did not make me feel any better nor did Harvard join in it (or even know about it).