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Illustration by Jim Atherton for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.
Illustration by Jim Atherton for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.


The end of online privacy Add to ...

In January of this year, researchers at the San Francisco-based Electronic Frontier Foundation tried an experiment. The online privacy advocacy group set up a Web page, and collected and stored the browser information of everyone who visited it.

There were no tricks. The site would not steal any data or urge casual visitors to install tracking software. It would simply log the same basic information almost all Internet users in the world inadvertently hand over each time they visit a website, including their time zone and Internet-protocol (IP) address - important clues to their location.

The most alarming result of the study of more than 470,000 Web surfers is that 83.6 per cent of them had an instantly identifiable, totally unique fingerprint: Their particular combination of settings and information was unlike that of any other user, increasing the chance they could be personally identified, even though they had done nothing but make a few clicks of the mouse.

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The traditional notions of privacy and anonymity - and even the revamped versions that arose with the Web two decades ago - are dying.

If you think the long-form census is pushy for asking you how many bedrooms are in your house, imagine someone knowing the exact colour of the IKEA sheets you're thinking of buying for your bed.

Indeed, a variety of players - including state security agencies to Internet marketers to organized-crime circles - are creating an online world in which the very concept of anonymity has basically vanished.

Earlier this month, The Wall Street Journal published a series detailing the type and quantity of information that online advertisers collected from site visitors. The investigation found that the top 50 websites in the United States "on average installed 64 pieces of tracking technology onto the computers of visitors, usually with no warning."

The Web is simply the most visible fragment of a system that includes everything from credit-score reports to radio-frequency-identification tags. Human beings are creating new data at an exponentially growing rate, and much of that data is personal.

The stakes are high. Privacy legislation in many countries was never tailored for the Internet age. As such, a host of nations - including Canada - are rethinking the very concept, and how to protect it in a world where personal information is becoming a form of currency.

Some of the world's fastest-growing companies, including Facebook, which is close to becoming the most-visited site on the Web, are in the business of collecting such information.

What they do with it will go a long way toward shaping the future of everything from how advertisers target customers to how banks decide on loan approvals.

The marketing-oriented assault on privacy is unnervingly complemented by a move to greater security measures, with everything from airport scanners to street surveillance cameras turning an invasive eye on citizens as they go through everyday life - and governments demanding access to your BlackBerry.

Put it all together with the constant availability impelled by texting, tweeting, cellphones and status updates - and you have a culture on a path to near-total transparency, a see-through society that may be past the point when it could ever cover back up.


Just a few years ago, many people thought the Internet was effectively anonymous, partly because they could do things such as leave comments on blogs without being identified, said Nart Villeneuve, a senior research fellow of the Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto's Munk Centre for International Studies.

"People at first thought anonymity was very simple," he says. "It's the complete opposite: The Internet is a great tool for spying."

At a conference earlier this month, Google chief executive officer Eric Schmidt outlined the not-too-distant future of information with a simple prediction: "True transparency, and no anonymity."

The buzzword of the day is "de-anonymization." And it goes beyond the Internet - starting with the postal system.

If you've ever entered your postal code to gain access to a website, the company that operates it probably knows roughly 14,000 things about you - if that company is a client of Toronto-based research firm Generation5 or a similar service. (The Globe and Mail is a Generation5 client.)

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