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A word to the web-wise

How much info will you exchange for a connected world?

Privacy has made a lot of headlines over the past couple of years and caused many of us to think about just how easily some of the apparent ‘gotchas’ that appear in the tabloids and broadsheets could apply to us. If you’re an aficionado of mobile computing or a smartphone user, you may be at particular risk.

I recently found myself watching a repeat on Dave of ‘Have I Got News For You’. The episode featured one of the first mentions of Julian Assange and the WikiLeaks controversy. The comedians dismissed the issue as absurd and characterised Assange as a crackpot. But by mid-2010, attitudes had changed: Assange was being hailed by some as a campaigning hero and WikiLeaks dominated the news.

This year has already signalled a shift in our attitudes towards information sharing and accountability. The long-running News Of The World phone-tapping investigation is reaching its nadir with News International’s admissions, and there’s a further Met Police investigation. Meanwhile, privacy campaigners hope to win an important victory by showing just how off-kilter BT’s thinking was in its trials of the Phorm Webwise tracking service.

Although the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) isn’t inclined to pursue legal action, given that only a nominal fine would result, there continues to be plenty of ill feeling about the trials and ‘invasion of privacy’ some BT customers feel they were subjected to.

According to WhatDoTheyKnow.com, when prosecutors finally got round to looking at the Phorm case in April, 539 Freedom Of Information requests had been made. These included requests for information about Phorm members’ meetings with then-prime minister Gordon Brown, and for details about Amazon’s blocking of Phorm’s scanning on its site. Cookies that show related items and products you’ve previously browsed when you next visit the online retailer are one thing, but it’s no real surprise that Amazon didn’t want technology employed on its site that might allow rival retailers to offer similar products and hence sell to you instead.

Of course, much of the news agenda these days runs on whatever information has been leaked or, conversely, attempts by secretive organisations to cover up goings on. From the enquiry into the death of Ian Tomlinson during the May Day protests to the contents of the Budget, there’s an awful lot of spin among these leaks.

But it’s not just media organisations and government bodies that are in the frame when it comes to privacy. As a result, more and more of us are keeping tabs on the sorts of customer information these companies share. Phorm web tracking may be no more, but nearly 10 percent of respondents to PC Advisor’s last annual broadband survey stated that their choice of ISP is governed by whether or not peer-to-peer file sharing is monitored. And while a CPS prosecution may not go ahead, Privacy International has stated its intention to press ahead with civil prosecutions. Richard Clayton on The Guardian’s Comment Is Free blog opines that just because the other boy says it’s alright to snoop, it doesn’t make it so.

Increasingly, our right to privacy is something we seem to have to actively defend, whether that’s our birthday, qualifications and phone number showing up on Facebook or what we like to browse online. It might seem a minor trade-off for the convenience of a connected world, but it’s one we shouldn’t give up on.

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