Opinion, by Samantha Barthelemy

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – Every day we spend hours online, reading the newspaper, checking our emails, wasting time, browsing our favorite blogs, communicating with friends, shopping and navigating social networking sites; instantly sending and receiving endless amounts of information.

Samantha Barthelemy, Carioca in New York specializing in International Security Policy, Human Rights and Advocacy.

We have willingly surrendered to the wonders and usefulness of online tools. In fact, many of us are unable to operate without them.

We rarely reflect about what goes on when we are logged in. But recent events are pushing Brazilian Internet users to think about what it means to have an online trail, the information it contains and what is being done with it.

Apple’s CEO and co-founder, Steve Jobs, recently denied allegations that the company’s iPhone, equipped with the iOS 4, was keeping track of owners’ movements without explicit consent.

The secret file is said to record latitude and longitude of the phone’s coordinates with a timestamp.

Alasdair Allan and Peter Warden, the data scientists who discovered the file, said details are copied to the user’s computer, iPod or iPad, once the devices are synchronized with the smartphone. The information would then be send to Apple, compiling data to build a “superbank,” to cater to the growing location-based-services market.

The file does not contain information directly identifying the user or the phone. But anyone, from “a jealous spouse” to a robber, could get every detail about where the user had been and when.

Surely Apple is not the only “bad guy” gathering and disseminating personal information. Think of the world’s largest social networking site.

With 500 million-plus users, Facebook has become a platform where your information is made public by default, and settings allow others to share data about you without explicit consent. You have to opt out to keep details private, navigating through more than 170 options.

Internet privacy is so complicated that even the big players – believed to be the safest through auto-regulation – are vulnerable to security breaches. In April, Sony’s PlayStation Network was hacked, exposing information, including credit card numbers, about nearly half a million Brazilians and 77 million people worldwide.

Digital traces are difficult to control and eliminate, if even possible.

Many Brazilian users and legal specialists are fighting for the right to be “forgotten online,” as episodes of privacy violations abound. Cases vary from Facebook stalking and intercepted communication to sites providing users’ home and email addresses, and spam emails with CPF and ID numbers.

It gets even more complicated since Google, the aggregator through which such websites can be found, is not responsible for their content; the websites are administered by third parties.

In 2009 only 25 percent of Brazilian households had Internet access. But the numbers are growing fast and the absence of notice to users or control options can become even bigger problems.

One alternative is to implement national legislation forcing Internet providers and companies operating in the country to permanently delete information about users and their activities after a stipulated period of time.

The United States and the European Union are creating specific legislation to protect users – for instance implementing stricter control mechanisms and evaluating ways in which companies gather and disseminate data.

Brazilian authorities should follow suit. The idea would be to give citizens more control over how their information is utilized as they are navigating online. Users who do not wish to be tracked should have that right respected. For that we need to develop clear and consistent rules – adapted to a world of rapidly evolving technologies.

Companies should have to formally and explicitly ask users for their consent before monitoring their behavior and gathering, storing and distributing personal details; even if ultimately they cannot guarantee the data’s safety.

Here’s an idea to start with: why not make a rule that our personal information be made private by default?

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