Opportunity in Paranoia

A lot of fingers are being pointed over the current problems in e-tailing.

It’s bad planning. It’s bad security. It’s bad execution. It’s overaggressive expansion. It’s Wall Street’s fault. It’s Main Street’s fault.

Here’s my personal favorite: It’s my fault. Well, mine and that of 100 other reporters who have written stories about the security risks of the Internet. This one is my favorite because I like to fantasize about having unlimited power, the power to bind and loosen and make moguls like Jeff Bezos tremble.

The Wired News story linked to above points to reports that personally identifiable information is being stolen from servers (or from users’ machines at home) so that identities can be stolen and people can be robbed. It happens, you know, and it’s going to happen a lot more over the next few months as the recession bites down on people. When times get tough, the tough turn to crime.

A little paranoia isn’t unhealthy, of course, especially if they really are out to get you. And they are. In the name of fighting terrorism, drugs, or child pornography, governments are demanding unlimited power to snoop on Internet traffic. In the name of protecting themselves, businesses want unlimited power to snoop on employees. In the name of protecting children, schools want unlimited power to snoop on students. Then, of course, some are just plain Snoopy.

What this means is there’s a market in serving the paranoid. SafeWeb is one of the companies exploiting that market. Its service, like that of Anonymizer.com of San Diego, allows you to surf the Web undetected. SafeWeb does it by opening a new browser window and encrypting the traffic. The business model, according to spokeswoman Sandra Song, is to sell an extra banner the window throws on users’ sites and to do “private label” deals with other sites. SafeWeb was very proud when the Saudi government blocked access to it as soon as the service opened.

SafeWeb “house banners” play to this paranoia. One notes that “Microsoft and AOL record your behavior in huge, rapidly growing databases.” Another reads, “No one cares about my personal information.” Adds another, “There are no serious repercussions to privacy invasion.” You get the idea.

Anonymizer.com and SafeWeb are far from alone in trying to profit from security fears. There are sites like IDzap, AntiTrace, Ultimate Anonymity, KeepItSecret, and SpacePROXY. Some charge their users, while others like SafeWeb are free. This is going on in addition to the routine use of encryption by those whose emailers have digital IDs from companies like VeriSign or PGP encryption keys.

My point today isn’t to get you involved in issues of privacy or paranoia, but to point out a simple fact. In business, everyone’s problem is someone else’s opportunity. Seizing opportunities, and making a profit on them, should be what we’re all about. Blaming the press may make you feel better, but it’s a fool’s game.

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