The stunning growth of Internet usage in some countries is also raising concerns about privacy. The qualities that make computer networks such powerful tools for improving efficiency and living standards also give them extraordinary power to collect, store, or distribute medical data, financial data, and other personal or biographical information. Many individuals and consumer groups are calling for new privacy safeguards for the Internet and other computer networks.
Personal information that may be of interest to businesses or people with malevolent aims is generated whenever people surf the Internet. Companies, for example, are able to learn a great deal about Web surfers who visit their websites. Using tracking devices known as “cookies,” companies are able to track purchases and gather personal data. They can use this information to target their marketing efforts at individual consumers or groups of consumers.
While some may welcome increased attention to their consumer needs, others may consider it an invasion of their privacy. There is also growing concern about what on-line and conventional stores do with the purchasing or personal data they collect during transactions. Under pressure from consumers, some stores have recently begun to develop privacy policies, but consumer groups say many of these policies fall short.
Finally, patients and consumer advocates want to set rules for the sharing of personal medical data. In each of these areas, it will be difficult to strike a balance between protecting privacy and ensuring a flow of information and data that can enhance quality of life.
The same Internet-based tools that can improve education, health, and governance can also cause considerable damage when used for purposes of theft or fraud. Companies and individual computer users are being increasingly affected by computer viruses and schemes to steal data or computer identities. Companies are spending enormous amounts of time and money to protect their networks and their data. Recent polls suggest that two thirds of American companies have experienced some form of “cyber-disruption.”
Resources that could be directed toward improving Internet capacity are being used to thwart cyber criminals. According to an article published in the Financial Times, the average annual cost per company of these disruptions exceeds two million dollars. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has estimated annual losses to industry in the $10-15 billion range. Recent data forecasts that worldwide spending on security will hit $86 billion in 2016 as a result of increased concern over cyber crime from China, which has been made a priority by the Obama administration (Infosecurity, 2012). Internet or computer service disruptions have become a major problem not only for companies, but for governments, associations, international institutions, and private citizens around the world.