Tuesday, December 12, 2006

The Digital Future

You can’t hide in the digital world

ND Batra
From The Statesman

It is a transparent world. You can neither hide nor run.
When jobs could be moved from one digital hub to another, one never knows where the axe might fall. Or who might run away with company secrets.
Since most office workers use the Internet and communicate via e-mail, companies are watching closely how their employees use the office electronic resources, including what they save on their laptops or access through their BlackBerrys.
Several court decisions regarding workplace privacy indicate that in the USA employees have few privacy rights over their e-mail if it is stored in the company’s system. Employers no doubt have legitimate concerns especially regarding the confidentiality of their trade secrets; on-going contractual negotiations; pornography and messages exchanged among employees that might lead to legal liabilities for the company; and whistle-blowing and other activities that may affect the reputation of the company.
These concerns are not new but the speed with which transactions are done on the Internet has created a state of perpetual paranoia. Frequently, employees also visit popular sports websites to check scores and also do online shopping and stock trading. Many of them keep chatline or instant messaging service open while doing other work.
Some multi-tasking in the workplace has always been there but the Web has created new opportunities and now it is becoming a common occurrence. With continuous restructuring and layoffs, many working people keep networking and looking for new job opportunities. Companies are watching who is applying for jobs and if anyone is trying to cross over to a competitor, he should not expect his boss to be merciful. Ironically, as offline and online worlds collide and converge, workers do not regard the office as a place of work only.
Nor is the home exclusively for the family. If a person is expected to carry his office on laptop to his home, why can’t he do his family chores in the office? The question can’t be ignored because the number of people who telecommute and have their home computers networked to their office server is increasing.
When home and office couple with each other, privacy ends for an employee. Putting employees into a digital straightjacket generates a coercive environment and might eventually adversely affect productivity. If monitoring is being done for measuring and evaluating efficiency, preventing fraud, protecting intellectual property and trade secrets, maintaining conducive workplace environment or whatever reason, the rationale must be explained to employees and the policy clearly laid out. Although courts favour employers at present, productivity depends on workers. We are slipping into a low-intensity surveillance society. Since 9/11 our sense of insecurity, both physical and economic, has increased manifold.
The American people are quietly submitting to whatever brings them a feeling of assuredness. Protests against intrusiveness by the government and businesses into our personal lives have become muted. Our computers know all about us and could tell tales.
Web bugs and other online surveillance devices are being increasingly used by businesses to track users when they surf their websites. Tracking is done unobtrusively and the user can never suspect that he is being watched; nonetheless, the practice is questionable, especially when the website does not declare in its privacy policy.
Advertisers surreptitiously place cookies, small software programs, on our hard drives to track where we surf so that they can customise the most appropriate advertising message for us to achieve target marketing, reaching the right person with right message. But web bugs are different. They can be programmed to collect whatever data is required without the knowledge of the user. For example a web bug can be programmed to look at a data file on a networked desktop without leaving a trace that data has been touched at all. When you look at your bank balance online, the web bug too could be monitoring it.
Some companies use web beacon, a single-pixel picture, to count and identify users. A web beacon can track whether a particular message, including junk mail, has been opened and acted upon or not. Any electronic image that is part of a web page, including a banner ad, can be programmed to act as a beacon and spy on the user.
Companies claim that the information enables them to personalise the surfing experience when a frequent user visits their portal, but they assure us that no personally identifiable information gathered from the beacon research is shared with the clients. Surveillance technologies are not limited to the Net. Several companies are using biometrics, face recognition, radio frequency and global positioning system (GPS) technologies, to keep a watch on their properties and track suspects. Many car rental companies in the USA use GPS to keep track of their rental cars. If a car is stolen or is involved in an accident, the company would know the exact location of the car. GPS also enables them to check the speed of a rental car.
I see the future now.
Along with our baggage, we too might have to wear radio-frequency ID tags so that we can be monitored as we move from one airport to another, from country to country via GPS. It may not enhance security, but it surely is going to be multi-billion dollar business. The security marketplace may determine how much freedom we would enjoy in the digital future.

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