The darkening cloud of online privacy Anthony Reinhart September 30, 2011 Communitech The hearts of many tech-loving consumers were no doubt set aflutter this week with the unveiling of the Kindle Fire tablet, Amazon’s answer to Apple’s iPad. WiFi-ready, Android-based and equipped with Amazon’s Silk web browser, the Fire and its $199 price tag are sure to ignite interest among those seeking an alternative to the market-dominating iPad, which starts at $499. Lurking above the Fire, however, was a cloud – specifically, Amazon’s Elastic Compute Cloud (EC2) – through which users of the new tablet’s browser will be directed in order to reach their favourite web pages, unless they opt out and choose slower, direct connections. Amazon’s ability to capture and monitor its customers’ browsing activity in that cloud has raised new alarms in an online security community already worried about similar commercial surveillance by Google, Facebook and others. Whether consumers hear those alarms amid the excited noise that greets each slick new device is another question – and an increasingly familiar one, as our online lives and the associated risks to our privacy expand in lockstep. “I think that there’s an amount of personal responsibility that everyone has to manage their privacy both in the real world and online,” Mark McArdle, a Waterloo-based tech CEO with deep experience in online security, told Communitech in a recent interview. “But I think we have to recognize that the technologies have evolved so quickly, and are so far beyond the understanding of what the implications are, if you’re a regular consumer.” The need to constantly reassess our online behaviour in an age of constant social networking and ever-expanding mobile capabilities represents an opportunity for tech entrepreneurs, particularly in Waterloo Region, McArdle said. Others, including federal Privacy Commissioner Jennifer Stoddart, agree. “I’ve long wondered if there’s not a niche market for products that allow the user greater control over their personal information,” Stoddart said in an interview with Communitech. “Canadians, with their relatively strong privacy legislation and their cultural sense of privacy, would be in a great position to develop this.” Waterloo Region is particularly well-placed for this type of work, McArdle said. It is home to Canada’s largest technology company, Research In Motion, which built its mobile messaging platform on a foundation of bulletproof security as demanded by its business and government clients. McAfee, where McArdle worked in development, has its key research and development team here. And, the University of Waterloo is home to the Centre for Applied Cryptographic Research. In the coming days, www.communitech.ca will carry a series of question-and-answer features on the topic of privacy and security in the online and mobile spaces. In the meantime, feel free to weigh in with your own thoughts in the comment space below.