By Jasmin Melvin
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Internet companies need to be more accountable for the mass of personal data collected from users to guard against cybercrime, industry executives said on Tuesday.
"Information is the currency of growth, but it's also increasingly become the currency of crime," Peter Cullen, chief privacy strategist for Microsoft Corp, said at the Family Online Safety Institute's annual conference.
"People have very high expectations when it comes to companies in terms of how they collect, use, store and most importantly protect their information," Cullen said.
Companies must hold themselves to high standards when handling consumers' personal information and invest more in internal structures to ensure privacy, he added.
Michael Fertik, founder of the online reputation-management company ReputationDefender, called for U.S. regulations that mandate opt-in defaults to give consumers greater control of their "digital dossier."
"It's remarkable how deep the data sets are about each of us, and it's disturbing," Fertik told Reuters, citing websites that track users' locations.
Companies such as Google Inc, Yahoo Inc, Facebook and Microsoft collect personal data that is often used in advertising or passed on to third parties without users' knowledge.
Fertik advocated limits on how long companies can keep personal data on consumers, warning that over time the data could be used beyond advertising, such as assessing health care premiums based on how often a person frequents fast food restaurants.
"Companies that make the bulk of their revenue in advertising have a very terrible tension between that economic incentive and your privacy interests," said Fertik, a member of the World Economic Forum Agenda Council on Internet Security.
The Commerce Department reported earlier this week a seven-fold surge in high speed Internet subscribers between 2001 and 2009.
Mobile devices are also increasingly being used to access the Internet; yet most Americans are unfamiliar with the privacy implications of being connected anytime and anywhere.
The U.S. Federal Trade Commission is preparing recommendations for privacy laws, and telecommunications analysts predict bipartisan support on this issue.
Amy Mushahwar, a data privacy and security attorney at Reed Smith LLP, in a phone interview called privacy a "nonpolitical" issue that both Republicans and Democrats could agree upon in a divided Congress.
"This is a much less partisan issue that still has the potential for movement," she said.
(Reporting by Jasmin Melvin; Editing by Richard Chang)