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Arun Marballi
THE NOTION OF INTERNET PRIVACY
By ARUN MARBALLI

I have often deliberated about privacy, or lack thereof, on the Net and keeping in mind the digital footprints we leave behind us during our traversal through cyberspace, I have frequently concluded that the notion of privacy on the Net is at best quite nebulous. Now, in a move that threatens to weaken this hazy idea further, a Superior Court judge in Ontario, Canada, last month interpreted these digital footprints as akin to listings in a telephone book and hence a part of the public domain; and ruled that an Internet user's surfing history was viewable and retrievable without need of a search warrant.

Although this ruling was rendered in the context of a child pornography case, it serves as a precedent in undermining arguments for Internet privacy and could have widespread ramifications down the road. While U.S.-based Yahoo recently declared that it would scrub personal data from people's Web searches (thereby rendering its logs anonymous after three months and increasing pressure on Microsoft and Google to follow suit), the Federal Trade Commission has contended that the Internet Service Providers have not come clean in explaining to their users about the nature of information about them being collected.

The FTC has turned the screws on the ISPs by threatening increased regulation and Congressional legislation if clarifications are not forthcoming. In short, Internet privacy continues to remain a questionable concept and cannot be taken for granted. Privacy or no privacy, the use of social networking sites such as FaceBook, MySpace and LinkedIn does not appear to be abating. On the contrary, this mode of "staying in touch" appears to be so much in vogue that if you are not in the network, you are truly out of the loop.

Members of these networking sites widen their "network" by inviting and accepting invitations. The wary members will invite or accept invitations only from people they know. But what happens when an impersonator who has hijacked your friend's account sends you an invitation? Chances are you will accept and thereby compromise your account.

Additionally, you will expose everyone in your network and enable the exposure of the network of everyone in their network and so on. It is this exponential nature of exposure in addition to the popularity of these websites that makes them attractive to cyber-crooks. Impersonators have been known to use fake profiles of well-known personalities. Contributing to the riskiness of using these websites is the real trend toward "friending" wherein members seek to friend as many folks as possible, even if they don't actually know them.

This trend was evidenced by Steve Otto in his column in Tampa Tribune recently, when he confessed to indulging in friending all and sundry because, as he indicates, he wanted to be friendly and "becoming friends doesn't seem to commit you to anything legal." It is this false sense of invulnerability - of appearing to be hidden behind a virtual curtain - that seems to lead to what is termed promiscuous friending - and eventually leads to compromised situations. The fact that a majority of the users of these social networking websites tend to be the under-30 age group just adds to the "all's well - no fear" nature of this environment.

Using this form of communication is not a problem - just be sure to adhere to the same caveats that work well with the rest of the Internet - take all unsolicited invitations with a grain of salt and do not follow suspicious links or accept software update offers.

Above all, as your parents often admonished you, choose your friends wisely! Almost hand-in-hand with the social networking phenomenon is the increasing use of smart phones and other mobile devices of the iPhone ilk. These nifty mobile communication devices have actually morphed into mobile computing devices and consequently, represent a new medium for exposing us to the same Internet-borne dangers that their larger and desktop-based brethren have so valiantly fought for years. Unfortunately, there appears to be no great urgency to address this vulnerability.

Research by McAfee indicated that half of all mobile phone manufacturers reported malware infections, voice or text spam attacks and other security incidents last year. Device manufacturers agree on the criticality of the security of these devices and indicate that the increasing complexity and sophistication of protecting these devices has significantly affected their business.

I feel that providing a secure communication and computing environment with these mobile devices is a responsibility that should be shared by the mobile communication carriers (Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile et al) as well and until this becomes a reality, the vulnerability of mobile computing devices used for accessing Internet resources will not be satisfactorily addressed.

Arun Marballi has worked in the Information Technology arena for more than 20 years with extensive experience in software development, process design and network/workstation management. For comments, questions, tips or suggestions, e-mail amarballi@hotmail.com.

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