FEATURE: The Thread of Online Privacy

Comdex Chicago 2001 was a show befitting of the times.

Offering content seminars for most aspects of the IT Industry, the show had an “It’s Time to Get Serious About E-Business” tone. Yet, despite its attempt to focus on new technology and information, in nearly every seminar or keynote I attended, there was mention of the darkside of the times: one speaker called the time “the dot-com meltdown period.”

While emotion-charged characterizations create colorful tags for the press, they also provide “the food” for discussion before, during and after a conference ends.

One of those recurring discussion threads at this year’s Comdex Chicago was the issue of online privacy.

Interestingly enough, this thread had power well beyond the entrance of the exhibition hall. On the closing day of Comdex Chicago, President Bush announced that he would no longer use email to communicate with his family due to concerns over privacy.

Even before President Bush’s moratorium of the use of email–clearly the most avidly used app of the Internet–the Speaker of the House of Representatives and Illinois Congressman, Dennis Hastert, said in his keynote address to the conference that people must feel safe about going online.

Hastert stressed the importance of the IT industry taking the lead in privacy issues. While not explicitly promising more industry regulation, he said that the industry should not delay in meeting the public’s demands for online privacy protection. “Your industry controls its own destiny and will suffer the consequences” if the issue is not addressed.

The consequences of a perceived lack of online privacy have already surfaced, to the detriment of the pocketbook of the Internet Industry, however.

In a Congressional Public Policy Forum, held on Monday at a Comdex pre-show event to discuss the subject of online privacy, Congressman Jim Moran (D-VA) said, “Evidence already addresses why privacy is important: 92% of people polled don’t trust the way information is used online. As a result, online sales have been reduced.”

The thread of online privacy has exposed the lower priority online privacy had prior to the “dot-com meltdown.” In a Comdex seminar on wireless security, the consequences of this priority were not only exposed, but the tea leaves (of the future) may have been read.

Erik Laykin, founder and president of OnlineSecurity.com spoke not only about security in the wireless world and but also on some of the trends going on with online privacy issues.

For Laykin, wireless security issues can be solved through technology and/or enhanced secuirty guidelines (training) within corporations to make employees more security-aware since 90% of security leaks occur within an organization.

But these solutions are meek compared to a proposal presently being considered in Hong Kong where ISPs would be required to implement robust servers to copy all network traffic for up to 60 days as a requirement for licensing.

A more controversial trend, says Laykin, is the voluntary waiving of online privacy consideration in order to catch criminals. Laykin cited a study by the Pew Center that found 53% would give up their privacy to give the authorities the power to track cyber-pornographers. While bad guys should be caught and prosecuted, an issue like this can create an aura of mistrust by consumers and effectively create a drag to the speedy adoption of e-commerce.

While the Internet Protocol (IP) is a highly efficient and flexible communication protocol for local and global communications, it is vulnerable to security risks.

In a Comdex seminar on “Wireless Voice Over IP: Is the Enterprise Ready?” Albert David, director of techncal services and operations, SSH Communictions Security, Inc. discussed the need for security protocols and standards, authentication and encryption to ensure that the content of VoIP networks is safe. Otherwise, he said, threats concerning “unwanted calls, unauthorized use and impersonations become possible.”

The issue of online privacy was also mentioned as an issue facing the broadband world. In the seminar “Broadband Content: Dreaming Consumer Futures,” Gord Larose, chief scientist of NetActive, cited the security flaw of 802.11. (Researchers at Bell Labs found a security flaw in which eavesdropping could occur during Bluetooth-enabled conversations.) He said: “We have not ensured privacy on the broadband Internet–yet.”

The success and failures of the Internet Industry were discussed in a Comdex panel discussion, chaired by MarketWatch.com founder Larry Kramer, with panelists Chunka Mui of DiamondCluster and Jerry Rayport, CEO, Monitor Marketspace Center.

Kramer cited all the successes–really lessons learned–of MarketWatch, which could be applied indistry-wide: use content personalization, give mutlichannel access; and the importance of an online company having an offline presence.

But then the discussion led to the way information is used on (and by) the Internet.

Kramer said, “Credibility is important. One of the great dangers I worry about is that online companies are using information wrong–putting anything up on the Internet and calling it news and criminals getting access to personal information. The industry has done a very poor job about creating standards on how information is used.

Mui cited the TiVo case as a way how not to use information.

But Rayport framed the online privacy issue more bluntly. “People do business with brands they trust,” he said. “There must be an [acceptable] level of conduct. We do it in the physical world and we will see more of it in the online world.”

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