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It's important to remember the Internet never forgets


(This column originally appeared in ComputerWorld Canada, Volume 15, Number 15, July 30, 1999.  It is reprinted here with the permission of ComputerWorld Canada.) 

There are several Internet sites that archive e-mail messages from various discussion groups and forums. This is a privacy-intrusive practice because the individual sending the e-mail has not consented to the collection or secondary use and disclosure by the archiving site. 

One of these Internet sites claims that it doesn't make anything available to Internet users that they couldn't already get some other way. If you believe that [their site] eliminates your privacy, it's good to remember that your privacy was compromised immediately upon posting to any discussion forum. 

The argument that the individual posting his message to a discussion forum waives his privacy rights is bogus. Individuals may intend their comments to be directed only to a group of individuals who subscribe to a specific list (e.g., other members of a professional association). 

Propagation of the message to other forums is usually done without knowledge and consent of the individual. 

The real problem, which is also the main attraction and benefit, is that the Internet provides powerful search, storage and propagation capabilities. As a profession, we sometimes get caught up with the application of technology instead of asking ourselves whether we should deploy technology in a certain manner. That tendency, combined with the American passion for freedom of speech, has created a situation where technology is implemented in ways that encroach upon our basic right to privacy. 

There is a general assumption that any information that is somehow "public" can be used for virtually any other purpose. That just isn't true. For example, many government-held lists are public records by practice or statute. However, the public record status is intended to fulfil some purpose of importance to society. Using the information for another purpose that has not been consented to contravenes the privacy principles that form the basis for virtually all privacy laws, including the proposed private sector privacy law (i.e. Bill C-54). 

It is an underlying philosophy in all privacy codes that the personal information belongs to the data subject. With minor exceptions, the individual should be able to control the collection, use and disclosure of the personal information. 

At some point there will be a significant backlash to this practice of archiving postings to discussion groups. As we go through life, our opinions and views on social issues change. For example, some young men and women may favour liberalization of drug laws. Today, those people might use a discussion group to promote their views. A generation later, those same individuals might not continue to hold those views but the Internet's "memory" would reveal previously held opinions. As a result, an upstanding individual might have difficulty crossing the border, or obtaining a job that requires a security clearance. 

Accordingly, it is impossible to have a public discourse on some important issue unless the individual accepts an unreasonable risk that someone might misuse the information long after it is relevant. 

It's a reasonable assumption that major political figures of the future are participating in controversial discussion groups today. It is also a reasonable assumption that someone will misuse that information to discredit them. Discrediting political foes is not new. What is new is that the discussion group archives bring the power of information technology to the process. 

Welcome to the future. Little Brother is watching. 

Boufford, I.S.P., is a member of the National Board of the Canadian Information Processing Society (CIPS) and president of e-Privacy Management Systems -- a consulting firm specializing in privacy and information technology. He can be reached at john.boufford@e-Privacy.ca.

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