Increasingly internet users online activities are being monitored and sold by large companies, landing some users in embarassing or financially damaging situations. Some privacy advocates are calling on the U.S. government to regulate how much user info can be collected.  (Source: Telegraph UK)
Industry coalition is pushing for tougher privacy legislation -- but is it a trojan source to sneak in monitoring?

In light recent data breaches like AT&T's accidental release of 100,000+ iPad customers' email addresses (including both Democratic and Republican politicians), some in the software industry and government are pushing for tougher privacy standards.

Among those companies pushing for improvements is Microsoft.  Peter Cullen, chief privacy strategist for Microsoft Corp, speaking at the Family Online Safety Institute's annual conference, states, "Information is the currency of growth, but it's also increasingly become the currency of crime.  People have very high expectations when it comes to companies in terms of how they collect, use, store and most importantly protect their information."

Its unacceptable for internet service providers and wireless carriers to let data be stolen or sell private data, he believes.

Online reputation-management company ReputationDefender founder, Michael Fertik, told a government panel recently that some people are suggesting that the U.S. government step up and force ISPs to give customers an easy to use interface to control what kinds of personal data they want to allow to be collected -- the strategy employed by European regulators.  He argues that most customers don't even realize that online media companies (e.g. Facebook, Google) are tracking their online behavior.  In a conversation with Reuters he states, "It's remarkable how deep the data sets are about each of us, and it's disturbing."

While data miners like Google and Yahoo in cutting its data retention times, the companies regularly collect data on users' "private" internet activities -- particularly web searches.  That data could increasingly land some users in trouble.  For example, health insurers are investigating using mined search data to monitor how often users frequent fast food restaurants, increasing premiums accordingly.  And some private investigation firms want to use searches for dating sites to ID infidelity.

Mr. Fertik says that expecting advertising-driven companies to self-censor when there's profit to be made is a questionable proposition.  He stated to us, "It is impossible to run a digital media company and care deeply about privacy."

Microsoft, despite doing some data mining of its own, earned Mr. Fertik's praise.  The key differentiation, as he sees it, is that Microsoft does not make the majority of its profits from advertising and thus has far less to lose from protecting privacy than its rivals.  He commented to us, "Microsoft and IBM dont make most of their money off advertising, so there's [little] tension between money and privacy."

He also tells us that he supports legislation to make it easier to opt out of data mining, stating, "It should be easier to opt out."

Congress is currently debating the proposal of new privacy laws that could offer users new protections in an increasingly web-connected world.  The idea has some support with both parties -- and some opposition from members of both parties, as well.  Amy Mushahwar, a data privacy and security attorney at Reed Smith LLP, states, "This is a much less partisan issue that still has the potential for movement."

Some privacy advocates are concerned, though that the U.S. Congress might use a "privacy" bill as a Trojan horse to sneak in increased anti-piracy provisions and proposed warrantless government monitoring of U.S. citizens online.

Updated: Nov 12, 2010 2:20 p.m.

There was some ambiguity in the interview Mr. Fertik gave Reuters, regarding whether he was directing his comments towards Microsoft.  We briefly interviewed him and have gained more perspective on his opinions.

Mr. Fertik made it clear to us that actually he holds a positive opinion of Microsoft and that he does not give negative comments about specific companies -- only positive ones.  When giving critical comments he refers in generalities like "media companies".  It is, however, pretty easy to figure out who the biggest-advertising driven forces on the internet are, so the remarks aren't too cryptic.

ReputationDefender is a company users can pay to remove their personal information from mining database and to lock those databases from collecting future information on their activities.

"Intel is investing heavily (think gazillions of dollars and bazillions of engineering man hours) in resources to create an Intel host controllers spec in order to speed time to market of the USB 3.0 technology." -- Intel blogger Nick Knupffer

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