Is Internet Privacy an Oxymoron?

Think there’s such a thing as Internet privacy? Think again.

Outgoing Yahoo! chief executive officer Tim Koogle might not have thought that Internet privacy was a contradiction in terms. But that was before he was “outed” by The Washington Post for using a screen name to participate in auctions — on eBay.

Now this story has many interesting threads, starting with what the heck is the CEO of a direct competitor doing bidding and buying on eBay? (The adjunct question might be, how long until eBay uses this fact in a commercial?)

There’s also the question of timing. Apparently, Koogle was in a shopping mood shortly after stepping down from the helm at Yahoo! — causing a seven-hour trading halt in the process — because on that day, he bought a US$130,000 Aston Martin and a Versace wallet, according to the Post.

But what’s most interesting is Koogle’s response to the revelation that he was the man behind the “Virginiadude” screen name. Specifically, the Post said that Koogle replied in part: “I don’t appreciate this invasion of privacy.”

Welcome to the Internet, Tim.

What Privacy?

The fact is that Koogle, like everyone on the Internet, was lulled into a false sense of security and privacy. A fake screen name seems like just the trick to shop, visit scandalous sites, even send e-mails to all sorts of people — anonymously.

But it’s simply not real privacy. Any enterprising investigator can dig back to the original source and find out the truth.

It’s easy to forget that, though. We read message boards where everyone has a screen name: some outlandish, some barely scrambled versions of their real names.

Gotcha Game

In fact, some people don’t even bother covering their tracks anymore, either due to boldness, a false sense of security or just plain laziness.

I recently covered a story about layoffs at a provider of online 401(k) programs. The tip was sent via an unsigned e-mail, but the e-mail signature bore the name of a competitor of the downsizing company. A quick check of the management profiles revealed just who had sent the tip.

Most of the time, though, our Web identities are shielded as a matter of practicality. In a corporate setting, there is comfort in numbers: Who has the time to screen the millions of e-mails bouncing around the server, even if many of them are personal in nature or bawdy in content and therefore against the rules?

Bigger Picture

But Koogle got a reminder and we should all take it to heart. In fact, his lesson was learned fairly cheaply. While a potential embarrassment to Yahoo!, it got little attention — perhaps even because of his pleas for privacy.

The fact is that everyone wants to believe in online privacy, but so far it’s like believing in Santa Claus. After all, what solid proof do we have that online privacy exists?

The Toysmart situation was supposed to be a turning point. But destruction of the failed e-tailer’s customer list did not ease privacy concerns. Instead, the opposite has happened. Dot-coms have gone about changing their privacy policies to specifically say that once a company or a division is sold or merged, all bets are off. In other words, e-tailers are reserving the right to sell our names, e-mail addresses and shopping histories.

Miracle on Web Street

Anyone with an e-mail address knows that someone out there is selling your information to the highest bidder — and there appear to be many sellers and buyers. So why should we continue to believe in online privacy?

And yet we do. And we continue to be surprised when policies are changed, either to erode protections or slip in clauses that preserve the status quo that personal data is a commodity.

As long as we blindly believe the myth that all is well on the Interent privacy front, there won’t be any changes to make it a reality.

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

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

1 Comment

  • Of course privacy is an illusion for the most part. However, the sale of personal details is questionable as usually they end up as spam addresses. As most spam is targetted at the US market but still sent to Europe the impression I get is that this selling is just about volumes. Every spam I get is forwarded to spamcop.com now, if everyone made that little effort spam would be killed off and the value of names lists would drop.

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