TORONTO (Reuters) - Forget any notions that Big Brother is after your personal information -- high-tech fridges and mobile phones are more likely culprits, a high-tech security firm executive warned a computer and privacy conference on Wednesday.
As consumers embrace new technology, growing pools of personal data ranging from phone records to shopping habits are freely available on the Internet, said Austin Hill, president and co-founder of Zero-Knowledge Systems Inc.
New Internet-enabled devices, such as fridges designed to work with the Web for grocery shopping and mobile phone networks that constantly track subscribers, are adding to the problem, he said at the tenth annual Computers, Freedom and Privacy conference in Toronto.
``I don't want to live in a world where every single one of my moves is tracked because I happen to want a cell phone or I happen to enjoy getting directions from my car,'' he said.
``Will I get free McDonald's if I leave a DNA sample at the door?''
To stem that flood of data, a combination of technology, industry self-regulation and government policy must build better dikes for privacy protection, he told reporters following his speech.
Canada, which passed a long-awaited privacy bill late on Tuesday, will force federally-regulated companies to get consumer consent before supplying personal information to a third party.
While that betters the United States -- which has no such legislation -- Canadian shoppers are still exposed because many buy goods on the Internet from U.S. companies.
``No piece of legislation is perfect,'' Hill said. ``I think it's a starting point.''
Governments increasingly are adopting policies to protect consumer data, said Ontario Information and Privacy Commission Ann Cavoukian in an interview. Hong Kong and New Zealand recently introduced such policies and Australia is expected to introduce privacy legislation next week, she added.
``Increasingly the U.S. is being pressured to do something,'' she said.
But the biggest threat to privacy may lie with the private sector, said Hill. There is no incentive for corporations to ensure their technology does not invade individual privacy.
``We need to start holding companies accountable,'' he said.
``Privacy will be one of the most important issues of the next century -- I believe it will be to the future what civil rights and environmentalism were to this century.''
Hill, whose Montreal, Quebec-based company sells a service that veils an Internet surfer in a secret pseudonym, is optimistic despite abundant examples of information abuse.
A U.S. news magazine program was able to compile a family's phone and medical records, credit applications, social security numbers and work records for a few hundred dollars, Hill said.
``It's a mess out there,'' he said. ``It will be something that we have to fight for at every step of the way.''