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The paradox of privacy

CNET News.com's Michael Kanellos explains why privacy in the electronic age has become a massive, intractable paradox.

Recently, I was the victim of an electronic privacy attack.

After I wrote an article skeptical of a new strategy at a desktop company, someone retaliated by posting my personal information to a discussion Web site. The data included--among other information--my phone number, every address I've had in the past 18 years, clues about my social security number, and the value of my house.

I was outraged: "The house could sell for far more than that! That guy with the Neptune fountain who painted his driveway green is more than three doors down from me!"

I contacted a friend at a security software company for help. He had no advice, but showed me an appraisal database, into which I promptly delved to look up what my friends had paid for their homes.

"Whenever I have a job interview, I look up any real estate owned by the interviewer, so I don't lowball myself in salary negotiations," he said.

Privacy in the electronic age has become a massive, intractable paradox. People are terrified about the ability of corporations to track their lives, but the world economy has come to depend upon all-seeing computer systems.

The subject is drawing some of the finest minds in the industry. IBM announced its intention to help tackle the privacy conflict by making it the centerpiece of last week's Almaden Institute symposium--the company's annual technology summit at its Almaden, Calif., lab. The RSA Security Conference, the largest security gathering in the world, followed the symposium this week in San Francisco.

Despite all the brainpower, we're far away from finding an answer.

On one hand, rapid databases, fast processors and massive storage systems have turned once-private (or at least difficult-to-find) information into fodder for marketing departments, governments and your enemies. Are you being sued? Depending on the jurisdiction, the court

People are terrified about the ability of corporations to track their lives, but the world economy has come to depend upon all-seeing computer systems.
file is likely to be easily found online. A Florida start-up is working on a 15,000-processor supercomputer than can essentially reconstruct the timeline of your entire life in minutes.

The situation, moreover, will only get worse. In a few years, surveillance systems will be able to identify people in the first few moments they walk into a bank or hotel, said security expert Whitfield Diffie, speaking at the Almaden conference.

"ID carrying will disappear in a decade, because facial recognition and other things will get good enough," said Diffie, who holds the position of distinguished engineer at Sun Microsystems.

Eventually, "we are going to find ourselves on a slope with some degree of mind-reading," he added. That's because, he predicted, these systems will be one day able to rapidly compare your facial expressions with samples taken in a normal setting and with others taken in more stressful situations--when you were explaining yourself to a cop on a freeway shoulder, for example.

"Dragging all human behavior into the public is literally totalitarian," said Bob Blakely, chief security and privacy scientist for IBM's Tivoli Systems. "If you erode privacy, you erode liberty, because people don't tolerate things going on in front of them that they don't approve of."

On the other hand, few people really want to restrict the flow of information. Search engines such as Google have made the world a smaller and far more accessible place. Collaboration

Search engines such as Google have made the world a smaller and far more accessible place.
among researchers on diseases such as SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) would be far more difficult without the ability to share patient data rapidly.

Plus, these data-collection efforts are often not nearly as insidious as they sound. Bruce Schneier, an author and cryptography expert, said recently that at a recent convention in New York, the hotel demanded a photocopy of his driver's license. Although the hotel ostensibly wanted it for security, Schneier said that such companies demand a photocopy for ulterior motives.

But what advantage could the hotel cull from the information? "Schneier, Bruce: Exaggerates height, lessens weight; wants to be an organ donor; used three bars of soap and all mini-shampoo bottles on last visit. Deny entry."

Remember that this is corporate America and the U.S. government with which we are dealing. The chance of their gathering data correctly, let alone devising a way to use it to their advantage, is remote. On top of this, experiments have shown that there is a 10 percent error rate in patient records and customer databases in financial institutions, said Gio Wiederhold, a professor emeritus of computer science and medicine at Stanford University.

Objections also come up about smart dust sensors that can surreptitiously take photographs or video in public places, but people who've found strange charges on their credit card are often advocates of stronger identification technology.

Research is already underway to lessen some of the deleterious aspects of snooping, removing identifiers that would connect the individual to the data. IBM, for instance, is tinkering with "randomizing" data, which involves fatally altering data in a database. Number-crunchers can subsequently use the randomized data to study trends in the numbers, but can never

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reconstruct the original data--an improvement over using encrypted data. It's in the experimental stage, but the results are better than expected, said Rakesh Agrawal, an IBM fellow and one of the pioneers of data mining.

Ultimately, though, business, government and individuals are going to have to agree to a compromise. Companies will likely have to take consumers' objections more into consideration when it comes to collecting or selling personal data. The legal fees and fines that come with misusing data will also help whip businesses into line, said John Tomaszewski, chief privacy officer at CheckFree, which specializes in payment systems.

Conversely, individuals will likely have to submit to the fact that data about them is floating about, other experts at both the Almaden and RSA conferences said. One person's invasion is another's convenience. The differences of opinion often boil down to indefinable, but significant, personal biases. The fact that security experts often disagree shows that there is a long way to go.

"It is going to take some time to play out because we don't fully understand the requirements," said Robert Morris, director of IBM's Almaden lab. "The scientists haven't engaged enough the with the policy makers."