Who’s watching you on the Web?

(U-WIRE) BOSTON – Do you ever watch old spy movies where sleuths in suits sneak around taking pictures with their shoes and wonder what became of the spy of today? Oh, he’s still there in North Korea somewhere pretending to work in shipping, but he’s only one lens in the scope of modern espionage. What is more common is the guy just down the street, an agent of the office park cul-de-sac. He’s watching you now, tracking, logging and analyzing your every move. You’ve seen him and you know full well what he does. He just looks different in coffee-stained khakis sitting behind a computer monitor.

I’m talking about Internet Service Providers, which control our connection to the World Wide Web and thus all the personal data that’s stored on it. Your websites? Cached. Your search engine history? Saved as history. Your downloads? Tagged and bagged. It’s all there, from the very first Internet link to what you just now clicked, saved as encoded cookies sitting there as treats for whomever can reach the jar. The question is: Who’s allowed in?

It might be speculation, but with enough financial incentive, it’s very likely that ISPs will get in on the act and start selling our Internet records to advertising companies producing specialized content. It’s probably already happening. I bet some firm, pushing Pepsi or porn or petroleum, is designing ads based off my entire web history.

Google already does this with their sidebar links prompted by key words in emails, news preferences and search engines. That’s what we sign up for with a Google account, and it’s docile enough. But take a look at Facebook. Last year, the website launched Beacon, a program to track your online purchases from select partner sites and broadcast them throughout your network – without your consent. After a huge backlash, Facebook removed the feature, yet founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg claimed the technology will be refined and one day accepted. Facebook took a lot of flak for that one, but it sent a disturbing ethical ripple throughout the Web. Just how secure is our Internet history? What kind of privacy do we have?

Financial motives are one thing, but what happens when the government gets into the act? AT’T is entrenched in legal controversy since it gave phone records to the National Security Agency without requiring warrants, a clear violation of the Fourth Amendment’s protection against unwarranted search and seizure. Yet some congressional members want to give them a free ride and change surveillance laws to better suit the ill-titled Patriot Act. Well, it’s a small step from phone companies to Internet providers. And isn’t mining personal information for advertising already an invasion of privacy?

Are we, the hunted Internet users, wary enough of our predators? I’d say most people don’t know what’s going on, but if they did there would be public outrage. So maybe the solution is a cultural shift toward “clean information,” toward ethical advertising. Maybe people should be able to choose what information is accessible and have the choice to be targeted. After all, the Internet is a wonderful commercial source.

Someone should start a non-profit that offers legitimate data collection and allows mining only with information explicitly allowed by the target consumer. If ethically sound data becomes popular, it can shift the market and entice information technology firms to buy “clean.” And the real money-maker – whom I hope will give me a 10 percent cut for the idea – is the guy who comes up with an algorithm to search you out on the web and wipe you clean from any ISP, like Internet bleach.

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