Security or spying? Digital fingerprints at center of privacy debate

David Norris wants to collect the digital equivalent of fingerprints from every computer, cellphone and TV set-top box in the world.
Written by Andrew Nusca, Contributor

Forget physical fingerprints. In a smarter world, digital fingerprints offer much more.

A Wall Street Journal report this morning profiles David Norris, CEO of tech startup BlueCava, who wants to collect digital fingerprints from every computer, phone and television in the world -- and also cars, homes and anything that could connect to the smart grid of the future.

The goal: assemble a wealth of data that not only allows for the development of more robust security measures, but also gives advertisers insight into the way we use our electronic gadgets.

The keyword here is "targeting." As the world rapidly transitions from first-generation digital devices -- those that are not connected to the Internet -- to smart, connected gadgets, there are all sorts of traces -- "digital fingerprints" -- left on the Web, just like you and I leave physical fingerprints in the real world.

Much like credit card companies use your shopping habits to tailor their product offerings to you, so will Norris' company, going beyond a financial product to display ads and other content.

Move over, FICO score -- now you've got a CAVA score to worry about. (Yes, I made that acronym up.)

But make no mistake, this is serious business. We already know that online vendors collect information about us and our activities -- if you're a Google user, a visit to Google Web History is always a sobering moment -- but it's mostly using their own services and platforms.

BlueCava's tech wants to fingerprint your actual devices -- not unlike a VIN for a car or a Social Security number for an American citizen -- and build a composite "reputation" based on your behavior, habits and demographics.

It's taking the online "cookie" to the next level.

Currently, the company uses data for financial fraud management, virtual machine identification, and digital rights management (DRM) software. But advertising and reputation profiles are just around the corner.

It's no surprise, then, that the key issue is privacy.

The Journal reports:

It's tough even for sophisticated Web surfers to tell if their gear is being fingerprinted. Even if people modify their machines—adding or deleting fonts, or updating software—fingerprinters often can still recognize them. There's not yet a way for people to delete fingerprints that have been collected. In short, fingerprinting is largely invisible, tough to fend off and semi-permanent.

For now, the company admits that it doesn't have a bulletproof way to notify users that they're under surveillance. Moreover, there's no time limit on how long it says it will keep the data -- "for the foreseeable future," according to the report.

And without legislation that specifically addresses the issue, it's the Wild West out there.

What do you think: smarter spying, or better business? How much information are you willing to give out?

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

Editorial standards