Craig Mundie, the MS senior vice president helping Chairman Gates develop
future strategies, says Microsoft is up to the challenge of "changing
society's infrastructure." If the Bill Joy phobic meme ever infects Bill
Gates, SI may come to mean suicidal intelligence. --J. R.
Microsoft's 'HailStorm' service stirs up online privacy issues
by Brier Dudley
Seattle Times technology reporter
An upcoming Microsoft system will use cameras and microphones to tell if a
user is facing the computer or talking, so it will know whether it can deliver
a message or a call.
As if an antitrust battle wasn't enough, Microsoft has thrust itself into the
growing national debate over online privacy with its new Internet-services
initiative, code-named HailStorm.
Microsoft is betting consumers will be willing to disclose more personal
information in coming years, in return for HailStorm's ability to simplify
online shopping, collaborating and communicating.
Financial analysts say Microsoft may be the only company in the world with the
skill and clout to pull it off, but privacy and security experts say the
company may be overestimating how much information the public is willing to
"This is sort of what defines you as an individual and I think there's some
real issues there about giving some company control of that data," said Mark
Rotenberg, director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a nonprofit
policy group in Washington, D.C.
But Craig Mundie, the Microsoft senior vice president helping Chairman Bill
Gates develop future strategies, contended that people were also reluctant to
use credit cards at first because of privacy concerns, and now the cards are
ubiquitous because they make life easier.
Mundie said the public will fully accept the HailStorm concept and Microsoft
as a trusted repository within five to 10 years. "They'll trade off aspects of
personal information in order to get a benefit," he said.
Gates presented HailStorm on March 19 as the cornerstone of a new generation
of Internet services Microsoft will offer starting next year.
Initially, HailStorm will consist of a universal password and a service that
would deliver short text messages to computers, pagers, phones and other
devices. It would also automatically coordinate appointment calendars and
store personal files online.
Eventually, the service will be able to watch and listen to computer users in
their homes and offices, so it knows when they are busy and when to interrupt
them with important messages and calls.
Microsoft researcher Eric Horvitz, who demonstrated the seeing and listening
"notification platform" at a conference in Seattle last week, said it will
"inform the notification manager as to how best to get information to you in
the right time and the right place."
Basic HailStorm services, including an expanded version of Microsoft's
Passport authentication service, will be free when they become available next
year. Services such as automatic message delivery and calendar management
would be available for perhaps $20 to $50 per year.
HailStorm would ultimately act as an online super secretary, arranging
appointments, filing documents, reminding the boss of a relative's birthday
and even helping buy and ship an appropriate gift.
If you are in a car accident, HailStorm could automatically send your medical
history and insurance information to the hospital before the ambulance
arrived. Then it could page your spouse and reschedule your appointments.
But for HailStorm to do its job to the fullest, users would have to entrust
Microsoft with all kinds of personal information.
Already people share some personal information with their bank, other
information with their doctor and still other information with friends and
family. But most people don't give all that data to a central registry like
HailStorm, said privacy advocate Rotenberg.
"One of the ways we protect our privacy is by disclosing some of our
information in some contexts and not in others, and it's in that selective
disclosure of information that you establish bonds of trust and friendship
with friends and family members and others," he said. "Sitting in the hub of
those relationships is the actual individual.
"What Microsoft seems to be doing here is saying, `Sure there's an individual,
but we can effectively map those data flows and extract them from the
individual and replicate them on a case-by-case basis,' and that's where I
think some substantial privacy issues arise."
Another concern for some is Microsoft's ability to protect that data. In
announcing the service last month, Microsoft officials acknowledged the
company has been vulnerable to attacks and system failures, but it also runs
some of the world's busiest Web sites.
"Now, being honest, some of that experience is very good and some of it's not
so good," said Bob Muglia, the group vice president overseeing technical
development of the services. "But we're committed to taking and learning from
the mistakes that we've made, such as the outage we had in January, to make
sure that we put in place the infrastructure so that we can run these things
with extremely high degrees of availability."
Still, having a single company in control of so much information makes some
security experts leery of HailStorm.
Centralizing data creates a target for attacks, especially if it's Microsoft
doing the centralizing, said Richard Stiennon, security-research director for
Gartner, a Stamford, Conn.-based consulting company that advises 60 percent of
the Fortune 500 companies.
"They're the most attacked infrastructure there is on the Internet, they're
the No. 1 target for hackers," he said. "For Microsoft to take the step of
having a centralized repository of information, a login or whatever it is, is
something that Gartner clients won't be advised to do."
Privacy and security concerns aside, Microsoft should have no problem creating
the sophisticated network upon which HailStorm will operate, said Giga
Information Group analyst Rob Enderle.
"Their image as a secure and trusted provider of this service is probably the
biggest Achilles heel," he said. "The second is the fee."
Enderle said Microsoft may overcome privacy concerns by partnering with a
trusted institution, such as Citibank, Visa or MasterCard, or perhaps even the
U.S. Postal Service.
Sooner or later, Enderle expects services such as HailStorm will drive the
next wave of Internet commerce by providing a more personalized experience for
the consumer. And Microsoft could make it work.
"They're probably one of the only companies that can pull together the mass of
resources, whether that be software development tools or platforms, to create
an overall integrated solution among messaging, customer information and
e-commerce that would be required to really change the Internet market," he
Another hurdle may be Congress, where concern about online privacy has
prompted several proposed laws that could restrict the collection and use of
personal information. A spokeswoman for Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said
privacy and Internet taxation are top priorities for his Commerce, Science and
Transportation Committee. McCain and Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., are planning a
privacy conference this spring to gather information from the public and
Microsoft is asking lawmakers to give any new laws enough flexibility to allow
services such as HailStorm, under the premise that users will be able to
decide for themselves how much information they disclose to Microsoft and
dictate how much the company will disclose on the Internet.
Mundie said the company is up to the challenge.
"We're talking," he said, "about changing society's infrastructure."
consciousness, phlogiston, philosophy, vitalism, mind, free will, qualia,
analog computing, cultural relativism
Everything that can happen has already happened, not just once,
but an infinite number of times, and will continue to do so forever.
(Everything that can happen = more than anyone can imagine.)
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