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February 14, 2009

Technology Raises Significant Privacy Concerns, Experts Say

“Even if you’re not in the information business, you’re in the information business,” observed technology expert Steve Emmett during the Saturday Midyear Meeting program “Privacy in the Digital World of the Internet, E-Commerce, and Post-9/11 America.” Emmett and other panelists examined of the rise of technology and society’s increasing use of it.

One of the most significant technology changes identified by all the panelists is the drop in cost of data storage to almost nothing. As a result, both private and public entities are keeping much more information for far longer amounts of time. Examples cited included information stored on hotel guests’ keycards, supermarket loyalty cards and electronic cards for road tolls.

“Panelist Susan Landau, an engineer with Sun Microsystems Laboratories, notes that rapid changes have forced law enforcement to catch up.”

As more information is collected, privacy concerns have increased. “We don’t know what private means anymore and the technology involved is having a big impact on that,” said panelist Harry Lewis, co-author of Blown to Bits: Your Life, Liberty and Happiness after the Digital Explosion.

Panelist Susan Landau, an engineer with Sun Microsystems Laboratories, noted that rapid changes have forced law enforcement to catch up. For example, Internet-based VOIP telephone calls through services such as Skype are increasingly popular, but these services cannot be wiretapped by law enforcement. Alternate methods of tracking such calls have not yet been developed.

The increasing use of other means of communication such as instant messaging and Twitter, have also raised concerns. “We have increasingly insecure forms of communication,” Landau said.

Consumers’ reaction to technology and its impact on privacy has been mixed, according to Emmett. Most customers have embraced companies such as Amazon that carefully track their product views and purchases. The public also seems to have readily accepted real estate Internet sites that list the buying and selling prices of homes. But in other cases, the public has reacted negatively. For instance, within 48 hours of its rollout, a new global tracking product created by Google called Google Latitude faced intense criticism.

Privacy concerns differ according to generation, noted panelists, sharing that those of younger generations are more comfortable with open information sharing than their older counterparts.

For lawyers and their clients, Emmett emphasized that the laws governing digital privacy “are very nuanced and stretched to the limit … and it’s very difficult to develop new laws. …As a consequence, organizations have to develop products that understand their consumers and look for reactions to avoid major missteps … The challenges are significant.”

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