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Private identities become a corporate focus

'It's going to get scarier'

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During his keynote during the RSA Conference, Scott McNealy seemed almost apologetic.

The Sun Microsystems CEO, infamous for his pronouncement, "You have zero privacy anyway - Get over it," took a conciliatory tone on the stage here, allowing that privacy might be something for which consumers should fight. He warned companies that, unless they protect consumer privacy, they could lose out on significant online growth.

"It's going to get scarier if we don't come up with technology and rules to protect appropriately privacy and secure the data, and the most important asset we have is obviously the data on people - our customers and employees and partners," McNealy told attendees last week. "And if we can't protect that, people are not going to go online."

McNealy joined the heads of other technology companies at the RSA Conference who called for better protection of privacy and more specific ways of thinking about what data needs to be known to identify partners and customers. Part of McNealy's epiphany: The week before the conference he was notified by a partner company that a lost laptop had his personal information stored on the hard drive.

"I wish I could share with you the note I sent back to them," he said, adding that he now better understood the consumer point of view. "It is a personal issue. What am I supposed to do now? They sent me this note, now what do I do?"

McNealy's realisation mirrored a wider conclusion among companies that privacy can be good business. It's a hard won lesson in the industry, and one for which consumers continue to pay. In 2005, more than 52m account records were put at risk by the poor security of the companies handling data. In 2006, the problem seems hardly any better, with one newspaper company accidentally wrapping people's Sunday editions with a list of 202,000 subscribers' social security numbers and Seattle-based Providence Home Services acknowledging that backup tapes containing 365,000 patient records in the states of Washington and Oregon had been stolen from an employee's car.

Along with the realisation that many companies have not handled customer data securely, many experts are questioning the amount of identifying data that companies store. Over the last decade, while the internet has boomed and busted, online identity has remained a binary proposition to most businesses: Users either fully identify themselves to a website or hide behind an anonymous handle. Because commerce sites believe anonymity means less security, online businesses have increasingly asked customers to more fully identify themselves, a choice highlighted by many companies' difficulty in keeping the data safe.

"Often times the topic of the level of authentication to create these models (of commerce) deteriorates into a presumption that there is an extreme choice to be made between true proof of personal identity and anonymity," RSA Security CEO Art Coviello said.

Coviello argued that companies should adopt technology that allows consumers to present trusted credentials for specific attributes, such as the visitor to the website is over 18 years old. In the current online world, a person might have to enter a credit card as "proof", but in reality that would prove very little and place valuable data in the website's system. Instead, a trusted third party - such as the Department of Motor Vehicles - could issue the certificate, which could then be presented to any site that required the data.

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