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Last Updated: Thursday, 26 January 2006, 08:31 GMT
Will convenience beat privacy?
By Tim Weber
Business Editor, BBC News website, in Davos

Byte by byte, the internet is taking away our privacy - but is that a good or a bad thing?

Policemen at the World Economic Forum in Davos
Are your personal details protected?

Remember the last time you shopped in your local supermarket? Did the freckly 18-year-old at the till demand that you tell him your birthday, where you live, your e-mail address, and whether you are interested in music or sport?

And would you have walked out had he done so?

But here we are, happily giving out this and much more information when we shop online, sign up for a newspaper's website or subscribe to an e-mail service.

At least we know when we are giving away our personal data.

But have you ever used Google Earth? It's a nifty application that allows you to fly over the world and zoom in on any location with startling detail.

Whoever knows your address can find out how many cars you've got parked in your drive, what colour they are, and whether you have a swimming pool in your garden.

If you didn't tell the local authority's planning officer about your little building project, she can find out without leaving her desk.

And if we are cool with what's happening now, what about in five years' time, when all PDAs have a camera and face recognition software that some people can hook up to a powerful database that can say who you are in no time.

So should we be bothered?

The convenience trap

"Not necessarily" was the answer of most participants at a World Economic Forum session called "Privacy - it was nice while we had it".

Because giving up your privacy can be great.

Amazon.com can tell you what kind of books or music you might be interested in, and there is no pesky retyping of credit card numbers anymore.

You get tailored news feeds, and an alert when your favourite band starts its world tour at last.

Anything that is digital will be captured, potentially stored and probably kept for much longer than you think
Database maker

It even allows you to sort out your finances. In some countries, getting a mortgage or car loan can be done online in 15 minutes flat, because somebody somewhere knows your deeply private credit history and shares it with the bank you want to get some money from.

We are happy because it is convenient. We part with private information, and get something valuable in return - frequent flyer miles, for example.

Or maybe it's just a return to village life, where everybody knew everything about everyone else.

Except that this cyber-village has a few billion inhabitants.

So much data, so little use

Many participants in the session were industry experts and right now, they say, it is actually surprising how little of the collected data is actually used.

These firms "are sitting on terabytes of information, but they can't figure out what to do with it - both for helping the customer and for using it for themselves," said an online industry consultant.

The point is, we don't live in societies that resemble 1984 or Minority Report - yet.

But go to a specialist search agency in the United States and for a mere $9, you will be able to get the most intimate lowdown on most people from publicly accessible records held mainly by local, state and federal authorities.

So we live in fear of what might be possible.

In the UK, mobile phone data was used to track the two 10-year-old murder victims in Soham, Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman.

People attending the World Economic Forum in Davos
Many firms do not use much of the data they hold, Davos heard

Mobile phone data gave away the movements of several people suspected of having planted the devastating Real IRA bomb in Omagh.

Good, you may say. But did you realise that in the European Union, all mobile networks have to keep a record of every call and every move your mobile phone made while it was switched on.

"Anything that is digital will be captured, potentially stored and probably kept for much longer than you think," says a maker of databases.

And let's not get started on the subject of DNA databases.

Still sitting comfortably?

Ultimately, privacy may not be the issue.

Rather, the point is whether all this data of ours is held securely - or can be stolen or used in a way you don't want.

And it's not just ID theft and the hassle of getting your credit rating or your reputation restored.

So what is really happening at the World Economic Forum

In China, the internet service Yahoo was recently forced by the authorities to give up the identity of a government critic.

It comes down to trust. Do you trust whoever holds your data? And do you know what they propose to do with it?

Most people apparently can't be bothered.

A website recently added a note at the bottom of its privacy policy, offering $5,000 to people who had read this document.

It took about 3,000 customers using the service until one person actually read the whole thing and claimed the prize.

But here in Davos, at least, privacy still applies. Because of World Economic Forum rules for certain sessions, the speakers in this discussion can not be identified.

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