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Online security and privacy: what does it mean ... and why should you care?

I hear it all the time. Web-savvy folks say they're reluctant to make their identities known on the Internet for fear someone will find out way more about their private life than they want known.

From a business perspective, this coin has two sides. Every business that is doing--or considering doing--business online has wrestled with the problem of the nameless, faceless customer on the other side of the Internet connection.

Business cannot be done without trust. You can't trust an anonymous person. And therein lies a classic conundrum.

My answer is simple--at least in the philosophical sense. What technology companies are struggling to deliver--and what online businesses are incredibly eager to get--is the equivalent ease of doing business at the local convenience store.

When I go to a convenience store, I walk in, select what I want, walk to the counter, pay for it and leave. Taking this simple transaction and moving it to the Internet is where it gets tricky.

Taking their argument to the logical extreme, privacy advocates would have me wear a ski mask at the store, so that the person at the counter wouldn't be able to tell who he was taking money from, or be able to link me with my shopping habits.

On the other hand, security advocates would have me strip-searched at the door. Then I would have my purchases in one hand, my clothing in the other, and have to crawl to the cashier on my hands and knees while being covered by a sniper.

What's wrong with this picture? Just about everything!

People on both sides of this debate have to be practical. Business owners aren't keen on shoppers wearing ski masks, and customers won't tolerate rude, rough or inconsiderate treatment.

Yet both concerns--security and privacy--have to be considered. Translating this practical solution into online reality is the real struggle, and it's being fought in the business marketplace right now.

Companies like Microsoft and consortiums like the Liberty Alliance are trying to bring Amazon.com's "one click" shopping experience to the masses. This process allows you to keep all of your shipping, payment and other identifying characteristics safely stored so that when you want to make a purchase, you just click once and you get a purchase confirmation. Period.

Through Microsoft Passport, or the Liberty Alliance "Federated Identity," an end user will be able to do personal or business shopping online easily with any business (including yours). The process safely shares payment information, so customers don't have to re-key it every time they want to do business.

What differs between these two approaches is where my concern lies.

Under the Liberty Alliance scenario, a standard will be established that any participating business can use to create an easy shopping experience for its customers.

Companies that want to provide this convenience to their customers will be able to purchase products or services from a variety of suppliers that support this standard. The Liberty Alliance plans to release its first specification in mid-July.

Microsoft Passport already claims to have millions of customers online. Market share for this highly sought-after ability is critical to the health of our entire marketplace.

So, with this alternative, the single supplier that will provide easy shopping access for your customer base will be Bill You-Know-Who. With no other game in town, I figure that it'll be very reasonably priced. Yeah, right. You do the math.

For more information on the Liberty Alliance, its founding and current member companies and how you can get clued in, check out www.projectliberty.org, e-mail info@projecfliberty.org or call (732) 465-6475 during regular business hours.

Hans Erickson is vice president, information technology at the Detroit Regional Chamber. If you have a technology question, you can reach our "Tech Guy" at herickso@detroitchamber.com.
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Title Annotation:Tech Knowledge
Author:Erickson, Hans
Publication:Detroiter
Date:Aug 1, 2002
Words:632
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