Jedi Knights of Online Privacy Strike Back at Data-Mining Empires

Article excerpt

Firms such as CloudCapture, which launched Wednesday, and Abine, which debuted its 'Do Not Track Plus' app in February, see a ripe opportunity to turn the technology developed to mine personal data into a tool consumers can use to fight its abuse.

This has been dubbed "the year of Big Data," meaning a time when online firms such as Facebook and Google are capitalizing on an unprecedented and vast amount of personal, user-generated information.

But the rush to corral, and monetize, that data is also fast ushering in a new digital management industry built around growing worries over the loss of personal privacy.

"Every day consumers are beginning to pay more attention to this issue," says Rob D'Ovidio, an associate professor of criminal justice and an expert on Internet security at Drexel University in Philadelphia. As more services to tackle the topic appear, "they will not only give consumers new tools but they will play an educational role in pushing understanding of the larger privacy issues."

Concerns have been escalating over what these Internet giants are doing with user data. Everyone from the White House and the Federal Trade Commission to the EU, and digital rights groups from the US to Europe, have been tussling with the problem of how to get online companies to respect consumers' privacy rights.

So far, voluntary moves by players such as Facebook and Google to address privacy concerns - notably a "Do Not Track" button that has no enforcement mechanism behind it - lack teeth, say critics.

Private companies such as Los Angeles-based CloudCapture, which launched Wednesday, and Abine, which debuted its "Do Not Track Plus" application in February, see a ripe opportunity to turn the same complex technology that was developed to mine personal data into a tool consumers can use to fight its abuse.

"This is a repeat of what we saw at the beginning of the Internet," says Bill Kerrigan, chief executive officer of Abine, a four-year-old online security company based in Boston. "People slowly began to realize there were things going on all over the Internet they had no understanding about, and the antivirus industry was born." The same "awareness-driving-adoption" cycle is now building behind privacy issues, he says.

"Just as people began demanding tools to fight computer viruses, they are now waking up to the need to protect their personal privacy online," Mr. Kerrigan says. "We are at a point where consumers want someone working on their behalf."

More than 580 different technologies are being used to track personal data, he notes. Indeed, 73 percent of people using the Internet consider it an invasion of privacy for a search engine to keep track of searches and use that information to personalize future search results, according to a poll by the Pew Research Center released this past week. …

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