Individuals have to take their own steps to manage their personal data but how much power and provision they have to do so remains in question, according to industry players and advocacy groups.
Ovum principal analyst Graham Titterington described user privacy as a fundamental component of the human psychology as well as a symbol of trust and intimacy. For these reasons, it is still "a major issue" in today's Web 2.0 society, he told ZDNet Asia.
Furthermore, Titterington said, most forms of cyber authentication use personal information. "If privacy is dead, so is online commerce in the long run," he said, adding that many internet companies have a business model that is totally dependent on users' personal information.
The Australia-based analyst also emphasised the users' role in protecting their own privacy. He noted that many consumers have a "false idea that everything online is free" and do not realise that the content still needs to be paid for in some form or another.
"Ultimately, it is up to users to determine whether they want a free internet or control over their information," Titterington said. "[Consumers will] just have to look after themselves … [businesses] cannot be relied upon to act in the best interests of their customers."
Singaporean undergraduate Rachel Goh related how online users previously had more control over what personal data to provide in exchange for services they want.
"Our privacy, today, is no longer one where you have some clue or control of what is being done with the personal information you consciously give to websites so that you can carry out online activities, like checking your email or paying your bills," Goh said.
"Now, sometimes you don't even realise information is being taken from you," she noted, referring to the previous privacy breaches involving Apple iPhone mobile apps and Google's Street View.
After admitting its Street View cars had harvested personal data from unsecured Wi-Fi networks, Google could face charges in South Korea where local authorities had indicated plans to bring the case to court. Governments in United States, Australia and Germany, where the internet giant faced similar scrapes, had decided not to pursue the matter.
Google said it has made changes to strengthen privacy controls including simplifying privacy policies, and appointing a privacy director, Alma Whitten.
Provision of privacy controls limited
Goh said limited tools and controls are available to allow users to manage their privacy, which is an area some internet companies such as Facebook have said they constantly seek to address.
Facebook global communications manager Kumiko Hidaka said the company takes privacy seriously.
"[Facebook users can control exactly what they want to share and with whom they want to share it," Hidaka said.
Facebook's photo-tagging feature allows users to manage who can view photos in which they have been tagged.
The social network, however, had faced much criticism over its privacy practices.
Quizzed about critics of the company's opt-out privacy controls, Facebook's Hidaka replied that the site offers a set of recommended settings as default configurations, and people can choose to share their information with friends, friends of friends, everyone or to a customised list.
However, privacy advocate Beth Givens said "opt-out is a very imperfect vehicle for protecting personal privacy" where individuals have to take the initiative to opt out of the use of their personal information.
Givens, also founder of the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, said privacy is a human right. "Like all human rights, the individual should not be burdened with protecting one's privacy," she said.
She added that companies should instead allow consumers to opt-in to data collection and behaviour tracking.
Law not keeping up
Givens said laws in the United States are inadequate to prevent identity theft and curb stalking or provide individuals privacy protection.
The judiciary courts want to see "harm" to find cause for breach but it is difficult for a user to show a direct correlation between the company that shared private data and the harm the consumer experienced, she said.
Bryan Tan, a Singapore-based tech lawyer who runs Keystone Law said there is no presumption of privacy in privacy legislation. He said commercial forces have every incentive to lobby against privacy legislation.
"Until lawmakers feel that someone is overstepping his boundaries, lawmakers will only enact legislation to counter what needs to be countered," Tan said.
Via ZDNet Asia