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Interactive Privacy: Denial of Service

by Glen Emerson Morris
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Two events in early 2000 are indications of a growing war over privacy on the Internet. Several major corporate Websites, including eBay, AOL, and, were subjected to what is called "denial of service" attacks. Only days earlier, a class action lawsuit was filed against AOL asking for 8 billion dollars in damages for problems up to 8 million AOL users had with AOL's new 5.0 browser. Allegedly, if the 5.0 browser is selected as the default browser during installation, it frequently becomes impossible to use another Internet service provider without uninstalling and reinstalling the operating system first, another kind of "denial of service."

The interactive nature of the Internet means everyone on it, businesses and consumers alike, are to some degree vulnerable to each other. In order to be interactive, information has to be shared, and that shared information can contain risks. Mixed in the data of an e-commerce transaction can be a virus, a Trojan horse, a hidden data collector, or any other number of costly, and invasive, Internet borne afflictions. For good reasons, both consumer and business groups are calling for increased security on the Internet, and both are likely to get it, at least to some degree. Despite a foundation based on openness, the Internet is rapidly becoming a place where, as Robert Frost put it, "good fences make good neighbors."

The problem is that security on the Internet is coming to mean different things to different groups of people. To the business community, security is in knowing as much as possible about the consumers that log on to their Websites. To the consumer, security is in privacy and anonymity, where businesses know the least about them possible. These goals are in conflict, and will be difficult to reconcile.

Consumers are already on the warpath for privacy, and at least some politicians are noticing. The recent decision by the U.S. Supreme Court upholding federal laws prohibiting states from selling driver's license information has encouraged the proposal of several new privacy laws that are even more restrictive. Privacy laws are likely to be a hot topic among consumers this coming presidential election, even if many legislators would rather avoid the issue.

Even if the new consumer privacy legislation fails, there are still ways consumers can go on the offensive in the privacy war. Most consumers haven't figured out they can become far less trackable on the Internet just by turning off the cookie feature in their browser, but it's only a matter of time before they do. In addition, consumers are investing in security oriented software, and even more powerful software is under development. In the future, each home computer system will have software that scans all incoming and outgoing Internet communications for "privacy violations." Any non-authorized request for information from the user's system would be detected, and stopped immediately. (In the past, one BBS provider was reportedly caught uploading {or, in the consumer's words, "stealing"} copies of financial records from the user's hard disk.) The public is willing to volunteer some financial information to advertisers, but apparently it isn't willing to allow it to be lifted off their hard drive at each online store they visit.

Given the publicity surrounding the cyber attacks in February, it's not surprising that strong security legislation is being considered, but it may be shortsighted and unjustified. To put things in perspective, a study is a recent Business Week estimated that losses from Internet based attacks in the last three years combined were less than $400 million, or half the cost of the AOL lawsuit if a settlement is reached at ten cents on the dollar. (It is also interesting to consider that if the eight million AOL users in the lawsuit had decided to send an e-mail complaint to AOL simultaneously, they might well of caused the same overload and "denial of service" the hacker did, only it probably would have been legal. It also might have been far less costly than the lawsuit may prove to be.)

In addition to the political issues, businesses advocating a legal solution to their security problems are overlooking how much more practical it would be to develop a technological solution to prevent attacks in the first place, rather than find someone to blame afterwards. Unfortunately, it's quite possible for a young teenager to do millions of dollars worth of damage on the Internet. The law may allow for recovery of damages, but in most cases, the kid's parents will be only be able to cover a fraction of the damages.

In its quest to create a secure environment for e-commerce, the business community has to consider its strategy very carefully. Passing laws that arbitrarily make consumers reveal their identities on the Internet in the name of security is only likely to cause consumers to ask for even more restrictions on whatever data is collected about them. Paradoxically, the more the business community spends on security systems, the cheaper those systems will become, and the more likely consumers will be able to use them to hide from advertisers. Under these circumstances, finding an Internet security policy that satisfies both advertisers and consumers may prove to be as difficult as it is necessary.

Copyright 1994 - 2010 by Glen Emerson Morris All Rights Reserved

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