EU Backs IBM-Led Online Privacy Project

Targeting concerns about Internet users’ personal data in a Web 2.0 world, the European Union is throwing its weight behind a newly created research project designed to help safeguard users’ personal data as they navigate social networks and virtual communities.

European lawmakers are putting 10 million euros ($15.8 million) into that effort, called the PrimeLife project — for “Privacy and Identity Management in Europe for Life.”

The three-year initiative, comprised of participants from 15 academic institutions and industry research groups, seeks to develop both short- and long-term solutions to personal data security through identity-management applications.

At the forefront of the project is IBM’s Zurich Research Laboratory, which is already working to map out PrimeLife’s first offering.

“We aim to develop a toolbox, which you could describe as an integrated electronic ‘data manager,'” Jan Camenisch, the PrimeLife technical leader at the IBM lab, said in a statement.

“The data manager provides users with an overview of which personal data he or she uses, when, where and how,” he said. “It lets users define default privacy settings and preferences for all kinds of applications, and it prompts the user if applications request data for any other purposes.”

In many cases, the EU has taken a tougher stance on privacy issues than U.S. government bodies. While the exclusion of privacy concerns from the recent regulatory review of Google’s acquisition of the online advertising company DoubleClick disappointed consumer advocacy groups, today’s announcement may nonetheless signal that Internet privacy remains a high concern for European authorities.

Thanks in part to the EU’s backing, PrimeLife researchers are working at the moment to introduce a scalable and configurable product for social networks and other Web 2.0 environments to manage users’ identities.

At the same time, they also have more extensive goals. Farther down the road, the group said it hopes to develop a method for privacy assurance that spans the life of a person’s online identity.

That’s certainly no easy task. The PrimeLife partners realize that fundamental improvements would be required in the technologies underlying the data manager that Camenisch described.

In addition to fashioning data-management and profile safety applications, PrimeLife’s mission also includes advancing disciplines such as human-computer interface research, cryptography and the languages behind configurable usage policies.

The project builds on the earlier EU project PRIME, or Privacy and Identity Management for Europe, which this month released the final version of a public tutorial on privacy issues.

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