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Privacy under threat because of internet snooping by governments – and you

16 November 2010

Internet snooping has become a global phenomenon with China preying on dissidents emails, the United Arab Emirates demanding BlackBerry turn over user data and the South African Protection of Information Bill allowing as much curbing of information as that which it protects.

Liza van Wyk, CEO of AstroTech and BizTech, two major training companies that devote almost a third of training resources to information technology courses said, “neither business nor the public have come to grips with how much information can be accessed by outsiders nowdays and a lot of it they voluntarily give up.

“As an example, those who use games and applications on Facebook, surrender a significant amount of information about themselves and their friends every time they allow an application. There are cookies that hold significant information about individuals and their companies and sell it on to information purveyors.”

In South Africa companies are allowed to screen the emails and telephone calls of employees and Van Wyk said, not enough employees were sensitive to how the unwise posting of comments or photographs on Facebook or Twitter could damage their careers and even their future. “Our IT and the law courses are consistently full as companies are realising the challenges and dangers the internet poses, and similar our social marketing media courses are as full because companies are keen to exploit this free advertising medium, but also need to protect information.”

For those who are not careful, the consequences can be grave. Four years ago, Stacy Snyder, then a 25-year-old teacher in training at Conestoga Valley High School in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, posted a photo on her MySpace page that showed her at a party wearing a pirate hat and drinking from a plastic cup, with the caption, “Drunken Pirate.” The university she was attending said her conduct was unbecoming to a future teacher and refused to grant her a teaching degree.

Snyder sued, arguing that the university had violated her First Amendment rights by penalising her for her (perfectly legal) after-hours behaviour. But in 2008, a US judge rejected the claim, saying that because Snyder was a public employee the action taken by the university against her was legitimate.

A young British woman was fired from her office job for complaining on Facebook, “I’m so totally bored!!” The International Herald Tribune reported the case of a 66-year-old Canadian psychotherapist who was barred permanently from entering the United States after a border guard’s Internet search found that the therapist had written an article in a philosophy journal describing his experiments 30 years ago with LSD.

A recent survey by Microsoft, found that 75 percent of US human resource professionals are required by their companies to do online research about candidates. Seventy percent of US recruiters report that they have rejected candidates because of information found online.

Van Wyk said: “Inroads into privacy are increasing; soon, Internet searches for images are likely to be combined with social-network search engines, which combine data from online sources including political contributions, blog posts, YouTube videos and Web comments. Reputation is going to become a very fragile commodity, what you posted when you were a high spirited 18-year-old could come back to haunt you as an ambitious 30-year-old.”

A recent University of California, Berkeley, study found that large majorities of people 18 to 22 said there should be laws that require Web sites to delete all stored information about individuals (88 percent) and that give people the right to know all the information Web sites know about them (62 percent).

But even the White House is moving to make it legitimate for the US government to have the right to see the names of individual citizen’s e-mail correspondents and their Web browsing history without asking a judge for permission. Already the US administration makes thousands of requests each month to Yahoo and Google for user information – and receives it.

“It is vital for citizens and companies to be sensitized to what is, and what is not admissible, and too the ways in which they can compromise critical information that could damage reputations and destroy lives or businesses,” Van Wyk said. “Internet law is one of the most rapidly changing areas of law in the world, but it is vital to stay ahead of new developments in law and technology.”

Source: Privacy under threat because of internet snooping by governments – and you