As Privacy Quakes, Collateral Damage for E-Commerce?

Much of the buzz around office water coolers lately has to do with the government’s new powers to follow our every move on the Internet.

When couched in language that makes it appear that such surveillance might help prevent further terrorist attacks on the U.S., many Americans are willing to forgo or compromise certain civil liberties. After all, tough times call for even tougher measures, don’t they?

However, some argue it was bad enough that employers already had the right to read our e-mail. Now the government can do so, too. Where will it end, Americans wonder?

E-commerce, to say the least, has a pretty big stake in this question.

Whither Privacy?

Just last week I sent both my social security number and some personal medical history in an e-mail. While purchasing a car through the Internet not long ago, I e-mailed my personal financial history.

In the past, I would do this without giving it a second thought. After all, no one would read this information except the intended recipient.

Now I must wonder if all the business I am conducting via e-mail and all the personal information I provide will be seen by others.

Like so many other Americans, I never really had to think about my privacy being compromised before.

Potential Threats

Before the new anti-terrorism legislation was passed, there was plenty of controversy over “cookies,” the technology that can track your moves from Web site to Web site. It was disconcerting to some people to know that their decisions about what to see or buy online could be monitored.

Now, with the new legislation, not only can you be followed, you can be suspected of conducting illicit or even illegal activity, depending on where you go online.

Because of the nature of the September 11th attacks, if you visit a Web site that has to do with flight instruction or Islamic teachings, the government might suddenly take an active interest in you. You might be deemed suspicious.

In more peaceful, less threatening times, civil libertarians who stand in opposition to these measures could probably make their case and do something about these new intrusions. Right now, the voices of the opposition to this new law can barely be heard.

E-Commerce Privacy

Does all of this have anything to do with buying the new J-Lo CD online or shopping for holiday gifts at various Web sites?

Yes and no.

When consumers were routinely asked before September 11th to cite their greatest concerns about online shopping, protecting personal information was always way up on the list. We still had not fully convinced middle America that entering their credit card numbers online was a secure thing to do.

A new law that enables government to monitor people’s personal activities online cannot help the cause of e-commerce. The prospect of being watched, followed or even suspected while online could be a deal-breaker for potential online shoppers.

The Shopping Dilemma

So, how are Americans to react? After all, our current nationalism and collective patriotic fervor feel right. We want to do what it takes to protect our democracy.

But at the same time, our economy is in the most severe slump in recent history, and we need to do what it takes to bolster it.

Some have suggested that since Americans seem to be going into a “nesting” mode, online shopping could considerably increase. Those who want to avoid malls for their Christmas shopping may well shop from the privacy of their own homes.

Now, that privacy has taken a huge hit. Will parents shopping at various sites for chemistry sets for their children be suspected of terrorist activities? Will students purchasing books online about Pearl Harbor or about bombs be followed by suspicious government agents?

Awareness is Key

If knowledge is power, this may be the best time for Americans to read the new anti-terrorism legislation. The entire act is available online.

All Americans will have to decide for themselves how far-reaching and invasive the new act really is. And all Americans will have to remember that after the current crisis is averted — and eventually it will be — the law will still stand and civil liberties will continue to be limited.

Then the question will remain: does restricting the right of privacy enhance our freedom, or weaken it?

What do you think? Let’s talk about it.

Note: The opinions expressed by our columnists are their own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the E-Commerce Times or its management.

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