Features

Goodbye, privacy?

National | Internet standards board may give you an ID number, the surfing taxi, and why digital TV will have to wait

Issue: "More clay than Potter," Oct. 30, 1999

I'll be watching you Did you think your privacy was safe online? Think again! A proposed new Internet standard would give every computer a serial number that would be sent with every packet of data. This makes computer networking simpler, but it's also the ultimate privacy killer, potentially stripping every Web surfer of his privacy. Right now, data on the Internet is identified by IP, or Internet Protocol, addresses that are used like post-office box numbers for routing traffic. Today, when a user dials into America Online or Earthlink or some other service provider, he receives a random IP address that identifies what service sent the packet, but doesn't identify the person. Usually, only a user who has a connection up and running 24 hours a day receives a static address. The proposal by the Internet Engineering Task Force-the international online standards body that controls internet domain names and IP addresses-could put the serial number in every IP address, thus ripping away a veil of anonymity used by millions. Users' actions are already tracked via so-called Web cookies (see World, May 29), but these can be easily hacked up and turned off. The newfangled IP addresses are inescapable. Currently, countless webmasters harvest incoming IP addresses, but the information is mostly used to tell where users come from or whether they are from educational, commercial, or governmental hosts. Naturally, the IETF's cyber-wonks are playing down the privacy concerns, but imagine how easy it would be, using a user's serial numbers, to track his every Internet movement and purchase. Someone could then get sites together and build a database of information about who people are and what they buy and where they surf. The surveillance possibilities are endless. It's the cyber-equivalent of making people wear giant ID cards around their necks as they walk around in public. Net without a computer Would you surf the Net in a taxi? Yahoo is testing such a setup in San Francisco, plugging 2H-pound laptops into the cigarette lighters of San Francisco taxis. This is one of the odder examples of the ongoing move to get computers off the desktop. Laptops and mobile computers are not new, but wireless access is growing rapidly. Another example involves Sprint PCS and Ameritrade Holding. The companies did a deal where customers could trade stock on Internet-enabled phones. This will be part of Sprint's expensive-but-cool "Wireless Web" service that lets users pull down data and view it on the phone's screen. The stakes in wireless are also rising. Intel announced this month it is paying $1.6 billion for DSP Communications, which makes chips for mobile phones. DSP stands for "digital signal processing," the technology behind the company's circuits and software. Intel already makes the memory chips for phones; this acquisition lets the company move beyond Pentiums and Celerons. The dirty little secret about high-tech is that many people hate sitting at a keyboard and typing, but they love TVs, car stereos, and telephones. So the market is opening to them, eventually letting people buy baseball tickets en route to the game or Christmas presents while sitting in the airport waiting to head for Grandma's. The goal is to make the Net as ubiquitous as electrical power, such a normal part of life that no one notices it. Delays, delays What if they gave a digital revolution and nobody tuned in? New digital TV systems are supposed to replace traditional broadcast and cable by 2006, but Americans may be reluctant to give up their old TVs. The consulting firm Strategy Analytics says current plans to make the Big Switch over the next seven years should be held off a few more years. The company predicts that fewer than 5 percent of U.S. households will be watching digital TVs in 2005. Why? TV companies can't agree on technical standards and consumers won't want to give up the sets they just paid for. According to a recent Business Week article, fewer than 50,000 households have plunked down the thousands of dollars required for HDTV, or High Definition Television. And those homes have little if anything to watch that isn't in the plain old NTSC (National Television Systems Committee) analog format. Compared to the rollout of cable TV, VCRs, and DVD players, HDTV is a disaster. Home theater buffs may be jumping to digital TV, but Middle America either can't afford it or doesn't care. Most viewers don't notice anything's wrong with their sets, anyway, especially those with screens less than 25 inches. At that size, the difference between the analog picture and the digital picture is hard to perceive. Besides, digital TV is as likely to pop up on computer screens as standard TVs, since monitors can be made for any resolution. And if digital pictures are available on home computer monitors, viewers might reason, why buy another TV? Furthermore, upgrading for the new technology is an expensive proposition for the TV industry, as well, since millions of dollars worth of equipment must be replaced. According to the FCC's plan for digital TV conversion, the traditional broadcast spectrum of channels 2-83 will be discarded in 2006. Old-style over-the-air TV will simply vanish. That's bad news for your standard set, and many viewers with multiple TVs won't switch happily, according to the consultant's report. ±

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