Electronic Design

Personal Privacy—How Much Do We Yield To Catch Cons?

Every day it seems that the daily papers churn out another story about someone conning somebody else by using the anonymity possible on the Internet. Whether it's a fraudulent sale of goods on an auction site or the misleading of a young child into a dangerous situation, some members of society demonstrate the worst that evolution has produced. Of course, there's the other side of the coin, and the Internet is replete with many, many more examples of how one may use the medium for good.

The Internet and Web have their roots in the research and academic communities, which by their nature rely heavily on the free flow of information. This idealistic open communications approach, though, places too much temptation in front of the schemers and other people who might do a wide variety of bad things. Some of the negative activities include releasing virus and worm programs, which can cost others millions of dollars in file damage and lost time; collecting and manipulating the information about your use of the Internet; and misleading users via false advertising or outright fraud.

But how far should we go to catch the bad eggs in the basket, and at what price to all of the good eggs? Many of us like the Internet because it lets us be anonymous. We can take on imaginary identities, play roles, visit Web sites—all with a degree of comfort that nobody else knows about our activities. For most of us, this is just a harmless way to escape the day-to-day pressures. Unfortunately, some have gone much further and uncorked a destructive side of their personality that can lead to many negative things.

Consequently, we must decide the degree to which we will allow the authorities in the outside world to intrude into our anonymity. Tracing e-mail flows from server to server, opening up subscriber lists to police scrutiny, and some form of online snooping are a few tools available to authorities. As systems users have started to include encryption technology, however, investigation agencies have expressed the need for some sort of secured set of keys to "unlock" coded transfers. That, of course, raises the question of who should control access to those keys.

For now, the simplest way to maintain some level of anonymity is to eliminate the small files known as "cookies." For those of us "in the know," we can delete the cookies that identify us each time we visit the Web site that created the cookie. But the average consumer is minimally aware of such issues, and for the most part, still thinks that a cookie is just something to eat.

To what degree should we consider still more active measures to mask our identities, or should we be that obsessed with keeping our identities submerged? Where should we, or the authorities, draw the proverbial line to find the balance between privacy and safety?

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