Confessions On Privacy

You’re going to hear a lot more about Internet privacy in the next month.

First, the Federal Trade Commission issues another report on the subject this week. Regulations may follow, because despite the efforts of TRUSTe, most sites still don’t have privacy policies, and many are either hard to find or figure out.

Second, a host of Internet start-ups launch this month to “guarantee” users more privacy than they’re currently getting. Lumeria is launching SuperProfile, which will try to charge sites for user data. PrivaSeek is launching Persona, which seeks to act as a “trusted intermediary” between users and their private data. Freedom from Zero Knowledge will encrypt clickstream data so sites can’t use it without permission.

The Russians have a word for this — bolshemoi. It’s a cross between oh brother, why me, what do you expect and we’re in deep trouble. It’s the hopeless feeling of something you can’t stop, but which is unnecessary.

The fact is that, for most Web stores, most of this hullaballoo is unnecessary. Be honest. Does your site use clickstream data to identify specific users? Do you routinely trade registration data with other sites? Are you building, or helping build, user profiles which Big Brother (or little brother) can use to bring the Black Helicopters down on someone?

I didn’t think so.

While there are some Web companies aiming to profile consumers from clickstreams, these are anonymous profiles aimed only at targeting ads. While there are some companies building huge databases of user behavior, they’ve been around for years, and the key ingredients they use are transaction records and public records that existed well before the Web was spun.

Do our users have anything to fear from us? And if they don’t, how can we tell them that?

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