D-Lib Magazine
May 2001

Volume 7 Number 5

ISSN 1082-9873


Internet Privacy: An Oxymoron?



It must be "that time of year" for privacy policy notifications. I have been receiving a blizzard of privacy policy pamphlets tucked in with various account statements and bills. I've been reading these privacy policies with a great deal of skepticism. They assure me that "the privacy of [my] information is protected not only by state and federal laws -- but even more importantly" -- by the organizations' commitment to me.

If anything, privacy policies are more commonplace on the Web than they are in my U.S. Postal Service mailbox. Almost every public website has one. D-Lib Magazine has one, too, at <http://www.dlib.org/dlib/privacy-policy.html>.

I must confess, I take what the pamphlets and most online privacy policies say with a large grain of salt. If I buy a certain item by phone, from an online web site, or even over the counter, within a few weeks I begin to receive unwanted sales pitches in print, email, or -- bane of my existence -- by phone that very likely could be the result of information gathered about me from the original purchase.

As a subscriber to the online newsletter "Technology Headlines" from the New York Times on the Web [1], I have the impression that an article about privacy on the Internet (actually, the lack of privacy) is published every few days. The articles haven't eased my mind about privacy concerns. It was in reading those articles that I learned about:

  • Something called a "phone home program, an update agent, or, more menacingly, spyware. The programs are small applications, or applets, and they are embedded in software." (Howard Millman, 1/18/01)
  • Email programs that use JavaScript to enable text to be returned to an original sender (without notification to the forwarding sender) every time the message is forwarded to someone else (Amy Harmon, 2/5/01)
  • Personalized television services that collect consumer data whenever viewers use their service to select shows (Reuters filing, 3/26/01)

What do these and other data collection methods have in common? They are usually invisible to the online user, buried in the software, or at least, as Millman writes, "buried within the fine print of the license that users are supposed to read and accept before installation."

In "Compressed Data: A Pessimistic Assessment of Privacy" (Susan Stellin, 4/30/01), John Podesta, former White House chief of staff under President Clinton is credited with saying, "this year is the 125th anniversary of the gummed envelope…this invention had provided 'pretty good privacy.' Not because the technology of licking and sealing an envelope was particularly secure…but because 'there was a legal, moral and cultural agreement' binding those involved in its transit."

Unfortunately, there does not yet seem to be that kind of 'legal, moral and cultural agreement' regarding online personal information. Until and unless privacy legislation and the associated culture catch up with technology, the term "Internet privacy" may remain an oxymoron.

Bonita Wilson
Managing Editor


1. The articles cited in this editorial were all published in the New York Times on the Web at <http://www.nytimes.com>. You can sign up for a free subscription to "Technology Headlines" and other email updates by going to <http://www.nytimes.com/email and following the instructions there.

Copyright© 2001 Corporation for National Research Initiatives

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DOI: 10.1045/may2001-editorial