The internet offers access to information, and products from around the world, but it also enables total strangers to keep track of consumers' purchases and computer use habits.
Sophisticated global positioning technology already in some car models gives a driver travel directions and warnings about traffic jams ahead, but it also enables anyone to know where that driver is at any given time. New software enables U.S. campaign workers to personalize their messages to voters by using personal data about voters' political beliefs.
According to University of California at Los Angeles Information Professor Phil Agre, never has personal privacy been at greater risk. "There are huge pressures, hundreds of them in different sectors, different industries, different parts of life toward the capture and diversion of ever greater amounts of personal information. It is quite overwhelming on very many fronts," Agre said.
Even some marketers who make great use of available personal information, like John Arvosis of Wired Strategies, an internet consulting firm, worry the privacy situation may be getting out of hand. Arvosis said, "It is to a company's advantage to have no regulations whatsoever on anything it does. But the issue is you always have to balance the rights of the citizens versus the rights of businesses, which is why we have environmental laws, and frankly why we need to have some kind of understanding as to what citizens privacy rights are."
Privacy advocates in the United States are pushing Congress to enact laws to provide greater protection, but others worry such laws could slow innovation. Phil Agre has suggested using technology itself to do the job. "There are ways of providing the functionality that people want in a way that does not lend itself to privacy invasion," he said. "For example, by keeping all the sensitive information on the device that is in the consumer's possession, the information can not be redirected to a secondary purpose by anyone else. Or by using cryptography to prevent communications from being overheard."
Mr. Agre says many companies are now trying to develop safeguards to protect customers' privacy because they prefer that alternative to restrictive laws.