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Privacy under the spotlight

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A new European Union (EU) study aims to find ways to preserve users' privacy when using social networks, virtual communities and other Web 2.0 technologies. 

PrimeLife (Privacy and Identity Management in Europe for Life) is a three-year research project, funded by the European Union’s 7th Framework Programme with 10 million euros. Coordinated by  IBM’s Zurich Research Laboratory and involving 14 other partners, its objective is to empower users to manage and control, throughout their entire lifetimes, their personal data and privacy whenever they participate in Web 2.0 technologies, such as social networks or virtual communities.
Individuals in today’s information society want to protect their privacy and retain control over their personal information, regardless of their activities. Information technologies hardly consider these requirements, thereby putting the privacy of the citizen at risk.
Today, the increasingly collaborative nature of the Internet enables any individual to compose services and to contribute and distribute information. In the course of a lifetime, throughout all its different phases and facets, individuals will leave a trail of personal data. This state of affairs harbors numerous drawbacks to many individuals because of the potential, unforeseen uses of such data not endorsed by the individual concerned.
For example, employers might access applicants’ online community profiles before inviting them to a job interview. In some countries, social networks have used details of customers’ online shopping habits or personal preferences without their permission.
Such incidents raise substantial new privacy challenges, including how to protect privacy in emerging Internet applications such as collaborative scenarios and virtual communities as well as how to maintain lifelong control over one’s personal data.
The EU project PrimeLife addresses these issues. Its objective is to bring sustainable privacy and identity management to networks and services. The first, short-term goal of PrimeLife is to provide scalable and configurable privacy and identity management in new and emerging Internet services and applications, such as virtual communities and Web 2.0 collaborative applications.
The second, longer-term goal of PrimeLife is to protect the privacy of individuals throughout their entire life span. Every individual leaves a multitude of virtual footprints during a lifetime of digital interactions, and technological advancements facilitate extensive data collection, unlimited storage, as well as reuse and lifelong linkage of these digital traces.
PrimeLife will empower individuals to solve the core privacy and trust issues pertaining to these challenges. Its long-term vision is to counter the trend toward lifelong personal data trails without compromising functionality.
“We aim to develop a toolbox, which you could describe as an integrated electronic ‘data manager’,” explains Jan Camenisch, PrimeLife technical leader at IBM’s Zurich Research Lab. “The data manager provides users with an overview of which personal data he or she uses when, where, and how. It lets users define default privacy settings and preferences for all kinds of applications, and it prompts the user if applications request data for any other purposes.”
Resolving these issues requires substantial progress in many underlying technologies. PrimeLife will substantially advance the state of the art in the areas of human–computer interfaces (HCI), configurable policy languages, Web service federations, infrastructures and privacy-enhancing cryptography. It thereby builds also on technologies developed in the preceding EU project PRIME, of which the Zurich Research Lab also had the technical lead.  
Several PrimeLife partners are participants in industry and standardization groups such as the World Wide Web Consortium’s PLING, Liberty Alliance, ISO/IEC JTC 1, and ITU. Furthermore, PrimeLife will work and interact with relevant open-source communities such as Higgins, as well as with other research projects in order to achieve the sustainability of these project results.
PrimeLife’s multidisciplinary consortium consists of the coordinator, the IBM Zurich Research Laboratory, Switzerland, and project partners from various countries: Center for Usability Research & Engineering, Austria; Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, Belgium; GEIE ERCIM, France; Unabhängiges Landeszentrum für Datenschutz Schleswig-Holstein, Technische Universität Dresden, Johann Wolfgang Goethe-Universität Frankfurt am Main, Europäisches Microsoft Innovations Center GmbH, Giesecke & Devrient GmbH and SAP AG, Germany; Università degli Studi di Bergamo and Università degli Studi di Milano, Italy; Stichting Katholieke Universiteit Brabant, The Netherlands; Karlstads Universitet, Sweden; and Brown University, United States of America.