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IT Confidential: If Privacy's A Contract, Who's The Winner?

Italian retailer Benetton Group appears to be backing off its ambitious plan to implement radio-frequency identification technology. The tony clothier had indicated last month that it was planning to incorporate as many as 15 million RFID tags from Philips Semiconductors in its various clothing lines, and that RFID readers in some 5,000 stores would collect point-of-sale data and automatically send it to Benetton's ordering systems. But Benetton issued a statement last week that "no feasibility studies have yet been undertaken with a view to the possible industrial introduction of this RFID technology." Benetton's plans for RFID tags set off a storm of protest from privacy groups concerned about the technology's potential for monitoring individual consumers. Benetton said further study of the technology would include "careful analysis of potential implications relating to individual privacy."

Speaking of privacy concerns, Lt. Col. Doug Dyer, a program manager at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, said at an IBM-sponsored conference on data privacy in Almaden, Calif., last week that Americans must trade some privacy for security. "Three thousand people died on 9/11. When you consider the potential effect of a terrorist attack against the privacy of an entire population, there has to be some trade-off," Dyer said. He's working on Darpa's Total Information Awareness system, a database-data-mining system intended to cull and analyze consumer transaction data for potential signs of terrorist activity. Signals of terrorist activity are likely to be weak amid such a large field of data "noise," Dyer said, and TIA is designed to seek patterns that indicate terrorist behavior while preserving people's anonymity. And so far, "we're testing our hypothesis on nothing but synthetic data," Dyer said.

Speaking of synthetic data, spam volume was up about 4% last month, and now accounts for 45% of overall E-mail traffic, according to E-mail filtering company Brightmail. Spam accounted for only 8% of all E-mail in January 2001 but 40% by last January. At this rate, spam will exceed the volume of regular E-mail this year, predicts Brightmail CEO Enrique Salem. March's jump is the single biggest monthly rise in spam volume, Salem says, indicating the increase is due to spammers getting more efficient and harvesting more addresses. A growing spam category: the war with Iraq. SurfControl, an E-mail and Web-filtering company, says spam touting war-related merchandise is the fastest-growing new type of spam, increasing from just a few messages to nearly 10% of overall spam volume. "Most of the war-related spam began to appear in mid-March, using patriotism and fear to sell everything from lapel pins to gas masks," the company said in a statement.

Hey, if it wasn't for spam, I wouldn't know about that money in Africa, where to buy Viagra, the latest version of Napster, my bad credit rating, or how to track down my high school girlfriend (like I'd want to). Of course, I'd rather get an industry tip, so send one to jsoat@cmp.com or phone 516-562-5326. If you want to talk about privacy trade-offs, both private and public, meet me at InformationWeek.com's Listening Post: informationweek.com/forum/johnsoat.


To discuss this column with other readers, please visit John Soat's forum on the Listening Post.

To find out more about John Soat, please visit his page on the Listening Post.

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