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Privacy Products Proliferate
by Wendy R. Leibowitz

Some have called this new millennium the dawn of the age of privacy in the United States. And where there is a new age in this great capitalist country, there are new products.

The questions about privacy protection, on and off the Internet, are widespread, and ironically, quite publicly discussed. Social Security numbers will be shielded on public documents under a new federal law. Medical records may get special protection from being sold to insurance companies, private detectives, and employers. An abortion pill has been legalized for import, in one of the more controversial areas of privacy.

At a privacy conference in mid-September in Washington, D.C., sponsored by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, an agency of the Department of Commerce, a trade show of new privacy-oriented products and services attracted a crowd. Everyone from American Express to Zero-Knowledge Systems was ready with practical ways to sell privacy to consumers.

American Express, www.americanexpress.com, is serving up "Private Payments," a way for consumers to purchase goods online without actually transmitting their credit card number over the Internet to the merchant. It provides a random, unique number for each online purchase, while your credit card number (and history) is kept private. The Private Payments number is used only for one purchase, and then expires. No fear of theft, and hence no more of those American Express commercials featuring panicked tourists who have lost their AmEx cards.

Incogno, www.incogno.com, is similar to AmEx's offering, but is offered to online merchants, who can provide "anonymous checkout" to buyers. Customers presumably will be attracted to a merchant who allows them to complete a purchase without providing their name, address, e-mail address, or credit card information. Since the merchant does not receive credit card information, which is handled entirely by Incogno, the risk of theft and fraud loss is reduced.

To shield your identity completely while online, iPrivacy, at www.iprivacy.com, offers iPrivacy Identity Manager from a third-party Web site. Consumers can generate proxy identities, and keep all their personal information away from databases.

For those looking beyond credit card protection, consumer offerings were dazzling in their variety. Encirq, at www.encirq.com, a marketing services company, has developed a unique data engine that delivers individualized, personalized content and services to consumers in a way that protects consumer privacy--neither marketers nor Encirq ever see the data, the company claims.

Manage your e-mail services with Disappearing Inc., at www.disappearing.com, which helps to delete, really permanently delete, old e-mail messages.

Microsoft's Enhanced Cookie Controls for Internet Explorer 5.5 allows users to delete all cookies with a single click, thus erasing Web-browsing habits. The company is also developing a "privacy statement wizard," or customizable form, that will allow small businesses to draft their own privacy policies. Details at www.microsoft.com.

Savvy consumers who want to set their own privacy preferences may enjoy YOUPowered, at www.youpowered.com, which is marketing itself to both individual consumers and businesses.

For some, nothing but strong encryption will do: Zero-Knowledge Systems, at www.zeroknowledge.com, encrypts your e-mail, protects your Web-browsing habits, while blocking spam and scanning outgoing text.

Talking the Talk

A series of excellent speakers discussed various ways to address consumer concerns about privacy on the Internet. Members of the first panel argued that the Platform for Privacy Preferences Project (P3P), www.w3.org/P3P, will be a major step forward for consumer protection on the Web. Built free into browsers, it will alert users as to what data is being gathered about them, and offer them an "opt-out" provision. Daniel Weitzner, director of the World Wide Web Consortium's Technology and Society activities, which spearheaded P3P, argued that a privacy standard like P3P is desperately needed, because privacy policies are proliferating in numbers and complexity. "Even for lawyers, privacy policies are confusing to read," he said. P3P is simply worded, and free to consumers, who will come to expect every site to have a privacy policy. "Very few people will say, 'I want my P3P,'" he admitted. "But they'll wonder if it's missing. It will become part of the seamless Web browsing experience for consumers" who may avoid buying from sites that fall below the P3P standard, he said. "P3P is necessary, but not sufficient, to guarantee privacy."

Large companies are embracing P3P: Marc Berejka, a senior corporate attorney with Microsoft's Law and Corporate Affairs Office in Washington, D.C., said that 20,000 companies have tested the beta version of P3P. One of them, Proctor & Gamble, gave P3P an enthusiastic endorsement. Mel Peterson, P&G's Global Privacy Manager, said it required only three days to implement P3P over the company's entire site.

But the nay-sayers on the panel were vehement in their protestations against P3P, voicing concerns about everything from the annoyance of pop-up screens to the lack of control P3P gives consumers over what information to disclose. Karen Coyle, a librarian representing Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility, disagreed with the notion that a pop-up screen informing people of the privacy policy of the site does not, ipso facto, protect consumer privacy. "Notice does not equal privacy," she noted. "It's the axle, not the wheel." P3P assumes that different sites will have different privacy policies and that consumers will make knowledgeable choices among the sites based on their privacy policies--which is true only for the technological elite, she said. "Privacy is a right, not a bargaining chip," she argued.

But Brian Adkins, the director of government relations for the Information Technology Industry Council, said that P3P was not intended to be a silver bullet, merely to build some privacy into the Internet browsing experience, and increase consumer awareness by informing them of their choices--to consent to providing information, as when a merchant asks to see a driver's license, or to opt out and shop elsewhere.

Stephanie Perrin, the chief privacy officer of Zero-Knowledge, said the entire focus on a technology solution may be misplaced. "Technology is no replacement for a law," she said. "It's a great way to implement a law, but let's not expect the technology to address all our problems." Currently, the best consumer privacy protection, agreed several panelists, is inaccurate information: lie when asked to provide personal data.


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