SAN FRANCISCO -- As Data Privacy Day dawned Wednesday, Microsoft released research indicating that people want to defend themselves online but are looking for a little help.
The Council of Europe designated January 28, 2007 as the first day devoted to spotlighting computer privacy and protection issues, and it became an annual event joined last year by Canada and the United States.
Microsoft, Intel and MySpace are among the technology firms joining advocacy groups and government officials in events aimed at promoting awareness of Internet privacy risks and what people can do to protect online data.
"In a way, personal information has become the new currency of crime," said Microsoft director of privacy strategy Brendon Lynch.
"The Internet is really transforming society in a number of great ways. It has also become a target of cyber-criminals and they are trying to get people's personal information."
Input from focus groups in the US cities of San Francisco and Dallas revealed "resignation that once information is out on the Internet it is out there forever and they don't have control of how it is used," Lynch said.
In what Lynch referred to as a "placebo effect" people trust security tools such as spam filters and anti-virus software to protect them online even though they don't know how the technology works.
The focus groups represented three age brackets: 18 to 24 years old, parents and professionals in their middle 30s to 40s, and Baby Boomers ages 60 or older.
"An interesting finding was there were more similarities than differences among the generations," Lynch said.
Shared responsibility for online safety was a common notion, with focus group members generally agreeing they are accountable for information they put on the Internet.
Businesses, governments and organizations need to play roles in teaching computer users how to protect online information and foster policies that safeguard privacy, focus group members maintained.
"People want to take responsibility, but they want a little help," said Microsoft chief privacy strategist Peter Cullen.
"This is a kind of investment portfolio that all the major stake holders have to think about continually contributing to."
Overall, people feel the convenience of sharing information online outweighs the risks but they expect control over how websites share their data, according to the research.
Earning the trust of computer users is considered vital to the success of Internet firms and online commerce.
"Internet users certainly are concerned about how their privacy can be protected in the Internet Age," Lynch said.
"In many cases, technology has brought about these concerns but ultimately technology plays a big role going forward."
Microsoft is among the technology firms working on gadgets or software to make passwords and files more difficult to hack.
Cullen will join MySpace chief security officer Hemanshu Nigam, Center for Democracy and Technology public policy vice president Jim Dempsey and others for a Privacy Day public panel discussion at San Francisco's main library.
Tips regarding how to guard data online are available at www.microsoft.com/protect.
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