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Last summer, former Google CEO Eric Schmidt told Wall Street Journal editors that young people will one day change their names at adulthood to hide from their embarrassing party photos and off-colour remarks viewable on social media websites.

Far-fetched? Perhaps not.

Already, many businesses employ computer technology to track their customers, developing detailed profiles of their preferences and shopping patterns and then using this to increase profits.

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But for you, the consumer, that means vacation photos posted to social media sites could be used to create a profile of you, or that your Web search history can help businesses tailor advertisements to you.

Indeed, the new and ever-expanding ways computer technology can search, store and archive information about all of us means that, in many ways, the notion of privacy is becoming obsolete.

Search engines can store information from past queries to create profiles of individual users; cell phone location-tracking technology means an individual's whereabouts can be determined any time, anywhere - a fact that embroiled Apple in controversy earlier this year when it was revealed some iPhones were also recording users' whereabouts in a file on stored their computers.

Even the way we pay for things, including credit, debit and the now ubiquitous membership reward cards, all allow companies to track our habits.

Yet, while potential threats to privacy are all around us, many people are unaware these capabilities exist, said Martin Ford, author of The Lights in the Tunnel: Automation, Accelerating Technology and the Economy of the Future.

"I think it's a concern, I think it's going to be a constant battle," Mr. Ford said. "The thing is there are a tiny number of people who are aware of what is going on."

What makes all of this possible is artificial intelligence, a wide branch of computer science that involves developing machines that can behave or imitate human-like intelligence.

Although AI comes in many forms, the dominant area is what's known as machine learning, which involves using algorithms, or lists of instructions, so that computers can identify patterns and "learn" when exposed to large amounts of data. The technology allows search engines, for instance, to produce increasingly accurate results depending on which results users click on most.

Despite the benefits, the growing presence of AI in our lives raises questions over how information is protected and whether there are safeguards in place to maintain privacy.

To put it in other words, you might not mind that a loyalty card keeps information about the purchases you make in a grocery store. But how will you feel when said grocery store uses AI data-mining applications to market products to you, at exactly the time when you may be most likely to buy them?

Some advocates argue such privacy issues should be a public concern and that action is required to safeguard information. Yet others suggest we should rethink what privacy means, and whether it's possible to shelter ourselves from prying eyes.

"We have to get over, at some point, the idea that we have privacy. We don't," said Adele Howe, computer science professor at Colorado State University and executive council member of the Association for Advancement of Artificial Intelligence. "We have to redefine what privacy means."

The main sticking point in the debate is reconciling improvements to life that advances in computing technology offer with the regular request this technology makes of us to surrender personal information.

For instance, in the next decade, smart phones may be configured to collect your purchasing history or web browsing habits to send you customized alerts about a sale at your favourite store, deliver electronic newspapers tailored to your preferences, or offer promotions to a restaurant as you walk by it.

It's convenient, helpful and time-saving. But the trade-off will be computers know your location at all times, have a highly detailed profile of your personal preferences and habits and are able to use that information for an endless array of purposes using built-in global position system devices, data storage and the application of AI.

That, in itself, is not necessarily a bad thing. But it raises questions about how information can be used, and who might have access to it, said Stan Matwin, computer science professor and director of the text analysis and machine learning group at the School of Information Technology and Engineering at the University of Ottawa.

"There are questions about that data getting into the wrong hands, or not even into the wrong hands, but [where it was]not necessarily meant to go," Prof. Matwin said.

An ominous example of how machines may represent an increasing privacy threat, according to Prof. Howe, is someone who was either just diagnosed, or had a family member diagnosed, with a serious illness. They may look up information about the condition online.

Theoretically, the companies they solicit information from could then conclude that person has a particular disease and could relay that information to the individual's employer.

It's a "what if" scenario, but Prof. Howe and other artificial intelligence experts say it's important to at least recognize the possibility personal information could be misused or abused with the help of computers.

But as computers and AI are here to stay, the question is not how to stop technological advancements, but how to ensure our information remains safe. It's an issue that policy makers, businesses and citizens should consider, experts say.

The modern smart phone neatly summarizes the sprawling debate. It can search the Web, store thousands of music and video files, but many of Apple's iPhones and devices running Google's Android operating system can also track your whereabouts.

One day in the future, it's possible tracking could become big business for Apple and Google, by targeting ads based on a user's location.

Perhaps, as Apple and many computer experts claim, the ability to track this kind of information will never be used for nefarious purposes. Indeed, the argument has always been that the technology is only in the interest of safety. Knowing where someone with a smart phone is located helps in an emergency.

But it also seems inevitable that each development in computing technology and the use of AI will bring potential invasions in privacy - and questions about how "personal" our private information really is.

Follow on Twitter: @carlyweeks

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