As the Internet moves beyond the PC to encroach on every aspect of daily life, new technologies are being developed that should help protect the personal privacy of Net users, according to John Patrick, vice president of Internet technology with IBM.
In a wide-ranging speech about the future of the Web at the Internet World trade show here on Wednesday, Patrick predicted that cookies will become a thing of the past, to be replaced by "digital identities" that give users greater control over who can spy on their Net activities.
Cookies are small pieces of code stored on a PC's hard drive when a user visits a Web site, and are designed to alert the site when the same user returns in order to provide a more "personalised" experience.
"Cookies were a great idea, but it has led to some abuse," Patrick said. Cookies can lead to an invasion of privacy when used to track a user's every movement on the Web, and then can be employed to aggressively target advertisements in ways that aren't always beneficial to Web surfers, the IBM executive added.
By contrast, digital identities allow users to decide when they expose their identity on the Web, and when they surf anonymously, according to Patrick. Initially a function of software, digital identities will evolve to use voice recognition or fingerprints to provide a means of identifying users with far more certainty than a signature on a piece of paper can today, he said.
A related technology working its way through the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) is P3P, which defines a standard allowing Web surfers to specify the level of privacy they want on the Net.
"Some people want to be anonymous, other people want personalised Web pages and advertisements because they are in a hurry," Patrick said. "P3P will allow us to express our preferences in the browser, and the server will then be able to set our appropriate level of privacy."
Patrick didn't say how close P3P is to fruition, although he acknowledged that most Web sites aren't even experimenting at this stage with new ways to identify and track users.
A more trusted relationship with the Web is just one advantage users can look forward to in tomorrow's Internet, according to Patrick. Besides improved speed, users can also expect the Net to be "always on, natural, everywhere, easy and intelligent," he said.
Patrick didn't put a date on when the new Net technologies will arrive, but said intense competition between cable companies and carriers, combined with new technologies on the drawing board, will make them appear sooner than people expect.
"There is no arrival data, it's just that every day it gets a bit closer." Patrick said. "Just look at the Internet today and think how much it has changed from five years ago."
IBM's Patrick is also chairman of the Global Internet Project and a founding member of the W3C. He has a Web page at http://domino.ngi.ibm.com/patrick//.