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Philanderers throughout the north-west US city of Seattle could be forgiven for feeling a tad anxious, thanks to a 30-something internet prankster called Jason Fortuny.

Mr Fortuny, who says he likes to “push people’s buttons”, caused a stir on the internet last week after he posted men’s private responses to a fake kinky personal advert he posted on Craigslist, the online classified advertisement site.

Some of the respondents were quickly identified. Many are likely to be
embarrassed after their personal and work e-mail addresses, pictures of male anatomy, and other sensitive information appeared on the web, in what critics have denounced as an unwarranted invasion of privacy.

The incident – though far from unique – has served to reinforce concerns over online privacy as people around the world attempt to get to grips with the internet’s ability to make personal information accessible to anyone, anywhere.

Shava Nerad, executive director of the Tor project, a non-profit group that offers a software program to help mask the location of people while they browse the internet, says that even after recent scandals, the general public remain naive about the amount of personal information they give away online.

“Anonymity and privacy right now are perhaps where anti-virus technology was 10 or 15 years ago, when people said ‘Gosh, this looks too complicated to deal with. I don’t know what to do’,” she says.

People who once thought their online communication was private may be starting to think twice after a string of recent incidents, including the notorious decision by AOL, the internet portal, to publish the search queries of more than 650,000 users.

Hjalmar Wåhlander, a Swedish computer programmer who built a site called AOL Stalker, which allows visitors to sort through the millions of AOL queries, says one of his motivations was to expose the practices of big internet companies that have started to compile large amounts of data about their customers with a minimum of consent.

“The real question is, why does AOL even collect this about their users? Why don’t they have proper policies on what goes on the web? Policies on data access? It’s obvious that access to search data is ripe for misuse,” he says. “I don’t think that the common user realises what kind of information and data he gives to the search engines, ISPs and shopping sites.”

Ms Nerad says people may have to be willing to part with a certain amount of privacy in order to function in today’s increasingly wired world. “There is a certain amount of that I accept, because it makes my life easier,” she says, noting that if people were determined to remain anonymous, they would have to turn off Javascript, Flash and a host of other tools that drive web applications such as e-mail or local search services.

Kurt Opsahl, a lawyer with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an online activist group, says invasions of privacy such as that committed by Mr Fortuny in Seattle represent the downside of the “democratisation of publishing” that has taken place with the advent of the internet.

“As with any technology, the internet can be used well and it can be used poorly,” he says. “At the end of the day, having the ability to publish information for millions of people to see far outweighs the [drawbacks].”

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019. All rights reserved.

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