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To be anonymous or not to be, that is the privacy question

Privacy experts debate merits of surveillance society at Stanford legal conference.

STANFORD, Calif.--Life was so simple before the Internet came along.

We could live our lives in relative obscurity, renting porn at the video store, checking out books on VD at the library, and consorting with all sorts of miscreants at dive bars, or worse, Celine Dion concerts.

Now, our moves, thoughts, transactions, and romantic tendencies are out on the Internet for everyone to see. You're in a silly costume at a party in a Facebook photo when you called in sick from work. Now you are captured on Google Maps Street View climbing over a neighbor's fence. And then there was that Web search you did with the keywords "torture" and "kittens."

Where does it stop? Should it stop? Do we even care?

"A total surveillance is not only inevitable and irreversible, but also irresistible," Jeff Jonas, distinguished engineer and chief scientist at IBM Entity Analytics, said during a panel on surveillance at a Legal Futures Conference here on Saturday.

For example, imagine how convenient it would be to have RFID chips embedded in sunglasses so you could find them easily, Jonas said.

Jennifer Granick, civil liberties director at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, acknowledged that she finds the location-based technology in her iPhone very convenient when she's trying to avoid traffic congestion. But she doesn't want the government to be able to use that technology to track her down.

The fact that all sorts of data about each of us is being gathered and is archived, searchable, and can be compiled to create profiles about each of us is what makes digital privacy intrusions so much scarier than pre-Internet life, she said.

Jeffrey Rosen, a law professor at George Washington University and the legal affairs editor of The New Republic, warned of "privacy chernobyls," which he described as "new threats to privacy that have the potential to transform society in troubling ways."

Examples are Facebook revealing more about its members than they care to have revealed and tracking their purchases without consent, as well as AOL inadvertently exposing search terms of 650,000 people in 2006. "That was one of the most invasive offenses against privacy I can imagine," Rosen said.

During the question-and-answer session, an audience member made some interesting points. First, there don't seem to be the economic incentives to do surveillance in the offline world as there are in the online world. Second, many people seem to be more worried about privacy breaches that expose embarrassing things about them than they are about things like location-based data that enable geographically related ads.

The perspective is different in other countries, Rosen said. Americans are, in general, concerned with preventing terrorism, while Europeans are concerned with protecting their individual privacy, he said. For example, the French will bare their breasts but not their salaries and mortgages, and the reverse is true in the U.S. "My fear is that the cultural differences will make thoughtful regulation difficult," Rosen said.

Government regulation is necessary to ensure that consumers' privacy is adequately protected online, Granick and Rosen said. Orin Kerr, a professor at George Washington University Law School, said the Fourth Amendment can be applied to the online world in a way that balances individual rights with law enforcement needs.

Eben Moglen, executive director of the Software Freedom Law Center, spoke up from the audience and urged people to protect their privacy themselves using technology. Laser pointers can thwart video cameras, and strong public key encryption technology can protect communications, he said.

"Facebook should be a bunch of free Web apps on everybody's personal server," Moglen said. "You have to stop thinking that the law is the stronger form of social control than the technology."

However, encryption use isn't widespread and won't be anytime soon, Granick pointed out. "It has to be easy enough, distributed enough that people will use it, whether or not they care about the issue."