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  • Ian Ritchie : Business AM

Should we all seek shelter from the Gates Hailstorm?

Personal privacy could be put at risk by developments that leave nowhere to hide

FOR SEVERAL YEARS now Microsoft’s advertising slogan has been “Where do you want to go today”. In fact, Microsoft always seems to make it pretty clear in their public announcements about where they want to go – they want to go everywhere!

I attended a trade show a few years ago where Bill Gates explained that Microsoft was planning to start “helping” people to keep their software up to date. “With their permission”, he said, “we will automatically update their software over the internet; keeping it up-to-date at all times.”

Nobody else seemed to be particularly worried about the implications, so I decided to ask Mr Gates about these plans: Would they charge for this service? Will they also upgrade non-Microsoft software? What about the personal privacy implications? He neatly sidestepped my questions.

Last week, Microsoft finally announced ‘Hailstorm’, the codename for their new internet-centric business model which they will begin to deploy in the next version of Windows, due to be released later this year.

Hailstorm will connect users in a seamless experience. Whether you use a PC, a PDA or a mobile phone, you will be able to access information, send and receive messages, and make transactions. The Hailstorm system, for example, will know when eBay are selling a special item that you have been looking out for, and will tell you when the auction is about to begin. If your flights are late, Hailstorm will take it upon itself to keep you informed.

Since Hailstorm knows exactly who you are at all times, it can vouch for you to online shops.

Microsoft intends to use its strength in operating systems (Windows), applications (Office) and web services (MSN) to build a huge critical mass of users. It will extend the Hailstorm environment beyond Windows into UNIX, Macintosh and Palm territory, allowing Microsoft to extend its dominance throughout the entire information industry.

It has long been Mr Gates dream to get a small tithe on every deal done on any computer, anywhere and this initiative moves Microsoft closer to that position.

The 160 million existing users with Hotmail accounts will form the base of this community, and they will be strongly encouraged to allow Hailstorm to look after more and more of their personal interests.

The more you tell Hailstorm about yourself, the more that it can give you exactly what you want back. It will be very easy and attractive to succumb.

So what does all this mean for personal privacy?

Unfortunately, the agenda in the US is being driven, not by the consumer, but by the big information companies. Earlier this month, the 10th Annual “Computers, Freedom and Privacy” conference was held in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Last year the online advertising company DoubleClick won the most invasive company award, so this year DoubleClick have appointed a chief privacy officer to argue their case, and are actually sponsoring the conference.

There is a key difference in philosophy on both sides of the Atlantic. Most European countries have data protection laws which forbid the use of personal information for purposes other than the ones for which they were collected. In the US, companies regularly sell personal data to each other. Since the US dominates e-commerce, and there are no borders on the internet, it is quite likely that all sorts of your personal information will be traded, whatever our data protection laws might say.

We are moving fast towards a time where will all be connected to the internet all the time. PCs are being attached by cable modems or ADSL connections to an ‘always-on’ service. The next generation of GPRS mobile phones are on the internet at all times. Not only that, many of them will also know exactly where you are - there will be nowhere to hide.

So then there is the small matter of security. Microsoft’s Hotmail has had to close down twice in recent years because hackers had read many of their user’s passwords. Microsoft had to admit only this week that an impostor had illegally obtained two digital certificates which are supposed to guarantee the authenticity of their software.

Now, when you download software supposedly from Microsoft, it could well be a virus.

With this kind of track record, do you really want to hand your virtual wallet, along with your passport and your most personal information, over to Bill Gates for his safekeeping?

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