How much e-mail do you get a day? How much of it is junk mail? I get about 80-100 messages daily, and random sampling (i.e., the day I wrote this) shows that about 25 percent was unsolicited mailings, better known as spam.
That probably isn’t too bad. Users of big, free, public accounts, such as Hotmail, Yahoo! and the like, are inundated. A 1999 study showed that over 90 percent of Net users got at least one piece of junk mail each week. I’d love a piece a week.
Spam isn’t just a nuisance: It’s expensive. A recent European Commission study concluded that spam costs Net users worldwide about $9.4 billion a year when you add up the time it takes to download the mail and delete it while online.
Spamming is simple: Get a database — easily purchased from any number of sources — write a pitch and flood the planet. If you send out millions of messages, even a minuscule response rate pays dividends. The EU report says, “Current technology allows a single cyber-marketing company to send half a billion personalized ad mails via the World Wide Web every day.” Phew.
Current technology also allows owners of Web sites to track visitors and acquire critical information. While cookies usually won’t identify a user — some do — that data can be cross-referenced to pin you down. And, of course, much of the Web is free only after registering.
In Europe, where privacy concerns seem to be taken a bit more seriously than in Japan or the U.S. — or the balance of power is tilted toward consumer, rather than producer, interests — Web pages are required to have boxes that allow visitors to opt in or opt out of future e-mailings.
Consumer groups want users to have to opt in; i.e., the default setting is “don’t clog my mailbox.” Marketers and businesses want the burden on users to opt out.
None of those protections means much when insiders sell data illegally. That happens more often than one would think; in Japan, at least, there seems to be a monthly news item regarding that kind of low-tech criminal behavior.
Right now, there is growing concern about “Web bugs” that secretly track user behavior. Commonly hidden in Web pages or HTML e-mail, Web bugs (also called clear GIFs or tracker GIFs) are more common than any of us want to think. Some of their uses can be justified, but they also shred any notion of privacy.
U.S. legislators are now proposing measures that would regulate the use of tracking technologies such as Web bugs and cookies. Calling privacy “the civil-rights issue of the decade,” the congressmen said they expect some form of legislation to be enacted this year. Thirteen bills are already pending, so that seems like a safe bet. The big question is whether the business lobbies will intervene and water down the provisions. My guess is some form of industry self-policing provisions will win out, at least temporarily.
You don’t have to go online to have your privacy violated, though. At the Super Bowl last month, police used secret cameras to scan everyone in the stadium and identify any criminals. Apparently, 19 people with criminal histories were found (police tried to apprehend one, but he escaped).
The use of closed-circuit TV cameras is proliferating. (Have you seen all the cameras at stations on the new Oedo Line?) Of course, law-enforcement authorities are worried about public safety. Remember the case of James Bulger, the British toddler who was taken away and killed by two boys? They were caught on film leading the child to his death. Cameras are used to identify traffic violators, who then receive tickets in the mail, sent to the license-plate holder’s address.
In addition to large public spaces, cameras are also deployed at “choke points,” such as immigration lines at airports, or ticket stands at train stations, to scan faces, match them to databases and catch wanted individuals.
Experts say we are still a long way from being able to use this technology to finger suspects with confidence, but if they are used with other corroborating information — a cellphone ID for example — success rates might climb, so a little paranoia might be in order.
A few years ago, the European Parliament released a report on “technologies of political control,” which devoted a good deal of space to just this phenomenon. Many people will say that its tone was extreme, and the author wasn’t sufficiently skeptical about technological capabilities. Others argue that we have to make some sacrifices to enjoy safety and security. And each society will have to make its own decisions about the proper balance to strike between individual privacy and social responsibilities.
The problem is that circumstances change; equilibrium is only temporary. New technologies allow individuals, businesses, governments to mobilize resources in hitherto impossible ways, at hitherto unimaginable speeds.
We might be comfortable right now, but the EU report author warns that “this intelligence infrastructure is essentially a massive machinery of supervision that can be retargeted fairly quickly should the political context change.”
Brad Glosserman (firstname.lastname@example.org)