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The end of online anonymity, part 2

Google CEO Eric Schmidt’s statement last week about the end of online anonymity recalls similar words by one of his former colleagues, Scott McNealy of Sun, more than a decade ago.

McNealy caused a stir back in 1999 when he said, “You have zero privacy. … Get over it.” McNealy was referring to the Intel Pentium III processor, which had a feature that could uniquely identify a user. The Internet had nothing to do with privacy in that context, but at a time when people were just getting used to using their credit card online, everybody who heard the statement could make the leap to the perils of e-commerce.

Schmidt said that society is facing major disruptions due to the incredible amount of online data being generated (“5 exabytes [or 5 billion GBs] … every two days” he said) — mostly user-generated content via blogs, message boards, Twitter, Facebook, etc.

Online anonymity is a paradox. People hide behind an anonymous email or forum comments, but there are ways to track you down. In addition, Facebook users may forget that the pictures that they posted from Friday night’s trip to the bar can be seen by everybody, even their bosses.

Predictive analysis of consumer behavior is inevitable, he said. “If I look at enough of your messaging and your location, and use artificial intelligence,” Schmidt said, “we can predict where you are going to go.”

That sounds a lot like the movie version of Philip K. Dick’s Minority Report, where Tom Cruise is pelted with personalized messages from every billboard he passes. But this is not science fiction. Electronics retailer Best Buy is partnering with Shopkick to enable your smartphone to communicate with the store for promotions and rewards points as you shop.

Online anonymity will be a casualty of the data-saturated world, Schmidt said. “The only way to manage this is true transparency and no anonymity. In a world of asynchronous threats, it is too dangerous for there not to be some way to identify you. We need a [verified] name service for people. Governments will demand it.”

Ironic, isn’t it. People yelled in protest at McNealy’s words in 1999. I doubt Schmidt’s will make much of a ripple, since nowadays the consumer is a willing accomplice in the end of anonymity.

Get over it? Now it’s more like, who cares?

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