UMass Amherst Computer Science Researcher Speaks on Privacy and the World Wide Web

AMHERST, Mass. - Susan Landau, a faculty member in the computer science department at the University of Massachusetts, will bring her expertise on privacy and the Internet to groups across the country in coming weeks. Landau will participate in a panel discussion organized by the Naval Research Labs on anonymity and the World Wide Web on Nov. 3 in San Francisco. She will also present a University Lecture entitled "Cryptology, Technology, and Privacy" at the University of Wisconsin on Dec. 2.

Society worldwide is grappling with how to address privacy considerations in the electronic age, according to Landau. The United States guarantees its citizens some degree of privacy, through the Fourth Amendment. Guidelines are stronger in Europe, where countries that belong to the European Union have just put into effect rules that restrict companies from collecting personal information about customers. Landau, who recently co-authored the book, "Privacy on the Line," says that privacy issues related to the Internet generally fall into three areas: anonymity of browsing, speech, and commerce.

Browsing, she says, is of primary concern for many people. "What if you were on your computer at work, and browsed a site on HIV, or breast cancer, or Alcoholics Anonymous?" she asks rhetorically. "Could your supervisor learn what Web sites you’d visited?" Absolutely, she says. There is a record on your machine, as well as the outside computer, detailing which Web pages you looked at, and for how long. More troubling, Landau says, is that your boss could release that information as he or she wished. "What’s to keep your employer from telling your health insurance company that you’ve been looking at sites on breast cancer? Nothing," she says.

Similar concerns apply to anonymous speech: if you send e-mail, or participate in a Web discussion group, or "chat room," your comments could potentially come back to haunt you in a court case or even a job application. This contradicts privacy policy in areas of society that are not computerized. "If you hand out a political leaflet, you don’t have to sign it," Landau notes. "An author’s decision to remain anonymous is an aspect of free speech."

Concerns about keeping your purchases private goes beyond ordering clothing or books over the Web, Landau says. "If you pay for something with a credit card, you’ve left an electronic trail. There may be things that you purchase, for which you don’t want a record to exist: liquor, or cigarettes, for instance." However, people will probably not win the right to keep purchases private when those purchases have been made electronically, Landau speculates. The reason? "Drug dealers. Law enforcement agencies do not wish to make it any easier for criminals to get their cash out of the country."