Page last updated at 11:16 GMT, Thursday, 20 November 2008

New privacy group to shape policy

By Maggie Shiels
Technology reporter, BBC News, Silicon Valley

An eye behind a mesh
Lawmakers have held several hearings examining online privacy protection

Privacy experts have banded together to influence policy in the new Obama administration and set best practices for the industry.

The newly formed Future of Privacy Forum aims to present a privacy agenda to the Obama team in late November.

It also plans to talk to internet users about their concerns.

"We are at a vital crossroads for improving consumer control over online data," said the Forum's co-chairman Jules Polonetsky.

"The Obama campaign used a lot of data in a tech savvy way so they fully appreciate the value of data for outreach and marketing and the need for best practices to ensure personal autonomy," Mr Polonetsky told the BBC.

President-elect Obama has said privacy was one of the technology issues his administration would address and that he would appoint the nation's first chief technology officer charged with making government more transparent while protecting citizens' privacy.


Mr Polonetsky said the past year had thrown up some worrying trends in how companies were "using data in a more robust way".

He cited practices such as behavioural targeting, the use of RFID's (radio frequency identity tags), mobile location devices and the sharing of information via social networking sites as areas of concern.

Screenshot of Webwise Invite, BT
A random sample of BT customers will be asked if they want to join the trial

Pamela Jones Harbour, the commissioner of the US Federal Trade Commission, agreed that these were areas that needed to be closely monitored.

"As the use of these technologies increases, industry must step up efforts to ensure that consumers understand and are in control of their data, " she said. "The creation of the Forum comes at a critical time and will play a leadership role in charting a path to improve online practices."

Mr Polonetsky, former chief privacy officer for AOL, highlighted worries over the controversial advertising technology developed by Phorm in the UK. It is being used by BT to watch what where people go online and target adverts tuned to their interests.

"The backlash in the UK over that particular effort had lead to a view here among some companies that behavioural targeting needs to be done with user consent."

Following complaints from users and rights groups, customers are now being invited to "opt in" to a trial of the technology.

"Heroes and zeroes"

As an example of best practice Mr Polonetsky praised European legislation and hinted it could be something the group looked to as it tried to influence US government policy.

Computer keyboard, Eyewire
The Forum hopes to work closely with the government on privacy issues

"There is a point of view here that if there is no obvious harm then it's fine and let the users opt out versus the Euro centric view that this is about personal autonomy and human rights.

"Clearly there is a large gulf but the more progressive companies are recognising that if you have every comment someone has made; search they have entered and catalogue they have shopped at, you can't say 'don't worry, we are not hurting anyone'."

"That is a fairly robust view of someone's entire existence online and you need to think about someone's personal autonomy over that information," said Mr Polonetsky.

The Forum's views were backed by Ari Schwartz, vice president of the Centre for Democracy and Technology.

He said: "We are moving on to a new chapter in privacy where users are starting to expect more control and talk about Web 2.0 vision of control."

Mr Polonetsky said the Forum would name the "heroes and zeroes" who used good and bad practices.

The group has the support of companies such as AT&T, IBM, Wal-Mart and Intel. Its board includes people from Facebook, LexisNexis, advisors to the former President Bill Clinton and also to President-elect Obama.

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