Privacy is an illusion cloaked by bureaucracy and ambivalence. But a cultural shift toward voyeurism, new economic opportunities and advances in technology are tearing through this veil, leaving the world naked and vulnerable. There will come a time when no one need ask, "Who are you?" because they might just as easily flip a switch, jump onto the Internet and get a more detailed personal profile than could be collected in a life-long relationship. Individual summaries will be packaged and sold like Cheerios in the supermarket. They will detail financial information, health information, hobbies, likes, dislikes and sexual preference, among other things. No more secrets. Caught in the Web, the world will betray its privacy in its monitored chat rooms, promotional marketing campaigns, curiosity and loneliness. Big Brother of the 21st century will not be a totalitarian governing body, rather, it will be made up of individuals and corporations with the resources to collect or purchase consumer information. And the Internet will suit its purpose because no where will information be more readily available than a medium that can track a consumer's every move. Banks, consequently, will be able to intimately evaluate consumersopre-approving some and flagging others. Is this really a proper direction for commerce? John Perry Barlow thinks so. "Ultimately, we're going into a condition where nobody has any privacy, and that's actually a healthy condition," says the celebrated founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. "But," he cautions, "a lot of things have to change in society before that's a safe condition. We have to learn a lot more about tolerance than we know right now." His contentions stem from the fact that he comes from a small town where everybody is kept fully apprised of everybody else's business. "You can go to the Wrangler Cafe and find stuff out about me that I don't even know yet. And I don't mind that because this is a place that's particularly tolerant of peculiarity and eccentricity, and they know me." Optimistically assuming that shared vulnerability will breed such tolerance (as opposed to paranoia which brought forth events like the U.S.-Soviet arms race), Barlow suggests that in 50 years the human condition will adopt a more forgiving nature. In the meantime, Barlow says that financial services institutions can protect the world from those seeking to exploit personal information. Financial services organizations become trusted third parties that separate consumer identities from their profiles. "There is a huge market and very profitable enterprise in being able to define the behavior of the buying identity very precisely and selling that information upstream to those who would sell products to the buying identity. It produces a much more fine-tuned economy. We're never going to reach that point so long as there is concern about revealing too much about yourself by your buying habits. So what you need to do is come up with ways of abstracting you as a physical being from your buying habits. And that's where traditional financial institutions can play a very important role." By adopting the "Swiss bank account" model, banks would create Internet aliases for their customers using account numbers such that even they wouldn't personally identify their customers by name. And so long as consumers trust their banks, they will part with all the personal information anyone wants because whatever they say will not be linked back to them; it will be linked to numbered accounts. Only the bank would be able to tie the two identities together, and they would be under contract not to do soounless legally forced to by the government. The downside? Product delivery would have to be handled through the banks to keep anyone from linking the consumer's two identities. This could be a logistical nightmare, when customers are not comfortable having either their names or Net account numbers on their packages. But such infrastructure challenges may be worth facing when taking on the cornerstone role in electronic commerceoespecially considering the alternatives. Rather than being EC's central figure, collecting unlimited jewels of information for which commercial entities around the world would pay handsomely, some would like to see banks play a less pivotal role. According to focus groups sponsored by CyberCash, consumers are wary of banks knowing too much about them, particularly in terms of debt. "Consumers don't necessarily want the banks to know what their house payment is or their utility payment or their car payment or what they owe others," says Richard Crone, vp and general manager of PayNow, CyberCash's secure electronic check service. "Even though the bank or (a bill presentment and payment) concentrator may not be physically or technologically viewing the bill, the impression given to the customer is that if the bill goes somewhere other than to them, they are vulnerable and their privacy has been invaded." Reassuring Conflicted Consumers Better for consumers' piece of mind, says Crone, is to keep transactions securely between the buyer and sellerono intermediaries. And while going to one place to retrieve and pay bills may seem more convenient, technology exists to facilitate decentralized payment and presentment. Using push technology, consumers can aggregate their bills on the Internet "in a way similar to 'My Yahoo,'" says Crone. My Yahoo, a data retrieval service from the search engine company Yahoo, retrieves information, articles and stock quotes based on self-defined personal profiles. Similarly, Cybercash is introducing a technology called "My Bills" to accumulate statements and present them directly to consumers. And make no mistake consumers of all ages and income levels are more than a little wary of what and how their information is being collected on-line. Study findings, most notably from The Boston Consulting Group, indicate that consumer adoption of electronic commerce is strongly influenced by concerns over what is being done with their personal information. According to the consumers surveyed in the "BCG/eTRUST Internet Privacy Study:" 76 percent "expressed concern about sites monitoring browsing on the Internet;"