Posts tagged & Privacy

Facebook, If You’re Serious About Privacy Controls, Let Me Control Them

Facebook wants people to stop getting frustrated with the company’s privacy settings. Well, good luck with that.

Almost any change Facebook makes to privacy controls triggers outcries and accusations that the social network is continuing to erode any remaining confidence people might have have sharing their data with the social network—and justifiably so. Yet Facebook just can’t stop trying to win over hearts and minds. If it really wants to succeed, though, it needs to become a lot more transparent, and more lenient, about how it vacuums up data, what sort of data it keeps and what it does with it.

Facebook has faced lawsuits for sketchy privacy policies, and recently closed down a controversial advertising product that used people’s likeness in ads. In 2011, the Federal Trade Commission settled with Facebook after the social network failed to keep its privacy promises, and the FTC reminded Facebook of those promises when it cleared the Facebook-WhatsApp acquisition on Thursday.

The company is hoping to change this negative perception. At a roundtable with reporters this past Tuesday, Facebook highlighted a few changes people will start to see in their news feed.

“We haven’t communicated as well as we could have,” Mike Nowack, privacy product manager at Facebook, told reporters. “[Feedback] has led us to think about privacy not just as controls or settings, but as a set of experiences that help people feel comfortable sharing what they want with who they want.”

For instance, Facebook is testing a minor tweak that would change the look of a drop-down menu that lets you select with whom you share, making “Public” and “Friends” the two prominent options (Facebook says those choices are the most popular). Facebook also told us that it runs 4,000 privacy surveys a day to better understand what people like or dislike about their current settings in order to make changes retroactively. 

The biggest change is letting users control who sees their past cover photos, one of the items Facebook deems publicly available information—that is, data that’s visible to anyone in the world. Previously, anyone could view all your past cover photos.

While it’s smart of Facebook to be proactive about educating users on privacy controls and anticipating backlash, these changes don’t go nearly far enough. The company is still missing some key features that would prove  it really takes privacy seriously.

You Can’t Not Be Public

It’s easy for strangers to find you on Facebook, thanks to publicly available information—the data you give to Facebook that the social network then shares with the world. This includes your name, profile photo, cover photo, gender, and networks such as your school or workplace. 

According to Facebook, it’s necessary for this information to be public: “These are pieces of information that both help disambiguate you from other people in the world, but help you get the best experience to find other people,” Raylene Yung, an engineering manager on Facebook’s privacy team, told me. “They’ve been a part of the site for as long as its existed.”

When Facebook was still a small and growing social network, it made sense for your personal information to be public so new friends or family that signed up for the service would be able to find you. But now, with over one billion users, many people have established their small piece of the social experience and don’t need to field any additional friend requests, while others just don’t want to be found at all.

Public information proves to be a difficult obstacle for many people who have experienced online harassment or stalking. I’ve personally been a target of Facebook stalking—in college I was harassed by a stranger who sent me numerous messages and a friend request; I eventually blocked him and the harassment stopped.

When asked on Tuesday about potential safety issues regarding public information, Facebook officials emphasized the blocking policy and said that people who feel harassed should report it to Facebook. Of course, once blocked or reported, harassers can simply create a pseudonymous account and find you once again.

In order to feel completely secure on Facebook, it should give users the opportunity to opt-out of search, or choose what part, if any, of their data can be publicly visible.

Facebook killed a privacy setting that did just this last fall. It eliminated users’ ability to block people from searching them, effectively forcing everyone into Graph Search—the massive, practically endless, natural-language search that contains all the public data of every Facebook user. I was one of the people that had the setting checked because I didn’t want to appear in unwanted searches, and was disappointed when the setting disappeared.

Luckily, you can tailor your settings to allow only “Friends of Friends” to send you friend requests, or “Only Friends” to send you messages, small but significant settings that deter unwanted contact.

Restricting cover photo viewing is a step in the right direction, but restricting or eliminating all required public information would boost confidence in users that Facebook is taking concerns seriously. 

Multi-App Strategy: What Does It Do With That Data?

When Facebook acquired WhatsApp earlier this year, the fear of Facebook getting its hands on even more of your data irked numerous users. 

Those fears could have legs—a report published by data analytics company SiSense took a look at an average WhatsApp conversation and noticed the data potentially collected from WhatsApp is significantly more personalized and meaningful than what Facebook gleans from its flagship application.

SiSense analyzed the conversation from one of its own employees to illustrate the potential data Facebook can mine from WhatsApp. The analysis showed that Jennifer regularly talks about food, specifically desserts, that she is most active around 8 p.m., and she regularly talks about populism and conservative politics. 

Having access to these intimate conversations creates a more substantial profile based on what people say, not what they like—a profile that Facebook can then monetize. Although WhatsApp claims it will remain independent of Facebook and stay free from advertising, the company’s privacy policy says it may share personal data with third-party services “to the extent that it is reasonably necessary to perform, improve or maintain the WhatsApp Service.”

Clearly the FTC is concerned about the potential privacy flaws, too. The government organization sent letters to WhatsApp and Facebook that accompanied the acquisition approval, reiterating that their responsibility is to consumers first.

We want to make clear that, regardless of the acquisition, WhatsApp must continue to honor these promises to consumers. Further, if the acquisition is completed and WhatsApp fails to honor these promises, both companies could be in violation of Section 5 of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Act and, potentially, the FTC’s order against Facebook. 

Instagram’s privacy policies have also drawn ire from users. It was forced to change its policies in 2012 after controversial wording of its privacy policies put users in an uproar. 

And Facebook wants to bring even more of Instagram’s data in-house. The company is testing Facebook Places in lieu of Foursquare’s location services on the app that lets users geo-tag their photos. Instead of feeding precious data to a separate social network, Facebook wants to make sure it keeps tabs not just on photos, but location as well.

A Focus On Anonymity

Facebook has long been tied to your real identity. In fact, Mark Zuckerberg famously said, “Having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity.”

Those tides may be changing, however. In an interview with Bloomberg earlier this year, Zuckerberg said a number of applications created under the Facebook Creative Labs umbrella allow users to login anonymously—an unprecedented move for the social network. 

Recent rumors that Facebook is interested in acquiring Secret, an anonymous social network where people post photos and text updates, give more credence to the speculation that Zuckerberg and company are indeed pushing for more guarded privacy options. 

It could be just the spark folks need to turn the tables in favor of the social network. 

While anonymity may be bad for Facebook—its business is knowing as much about you as possible and using that information to sell advertising—it might prove a useful compromise for Facebook’s longstanding critics.

Lead image by Taylor Hatmaker for ReadWrite

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SearchCap: Google Updates Its Privacy Policy

Below is what happened in search today, as reported on Search Engine Land and from other places across the web. From Search Engine Land: Google Updates Its Privacy Policy You may have noticed Google’s Privacy Policy has been updated as of March 31, with a red letter “Updated”…



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Google Updates Its Privacy Policy

You may have noticed Google’s Privacy Policy has been updated as of March 31, with a red letter “Updated” call-out the site’s home page preceding Google’s Privacy & Terms link. This is the first time the company has updated the policy this year, following an update…



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Google Gets Another Street View Privacy Fine — In Italy

It seems like each European country is taking its turn fining Google for some privacy infraction. This time it’s Italy and involves Street View. Google has reportedly paid a roughly $1.4 million (1 million EUR) fine. According a story in Reuters the issue this time was the failure to clearly…



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Glimpse: The Next Wave of Ephemeral Photo Apps Are Focusing on Privacy [SXSWi Interview] by @murraynewlands

If we’ve learned anything from Snapchat, it’s this—people love sharing photos, and will stop at nothing (including personal privacy) to do so. With the hype of ephemeral messaging continuing to climb, it seems like it’s the next big trend in the app world, but what does that mean for users? How can you protect yourself […]

Author information

Murray Newlands

Murray Newlands

Murray founded The Mail in 2013, an angel-funded startup publication covering performance marketing and mobile marketing. Murray is an advisor to a number of bay area startups including VigLink. In 2011 Wiley published his book Online Marketing: A User’s Manual.
Born in England, Murray moved to the USA in 2011 being recognized by the US government as “an alien of extraordinary ability”.

The post Glimpse: The Next Wave of Ephemeral Photo Apps Are Focusing on Privacy [SXSWi Interview] by @murraynewlands appeared first on Search Engine Journal.

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French Privacy Agency’s Site Crashes, After Demanding Link From Google France Home Page

Be careful what you wish for. In this case, the French privacy agency CNiL demanded that Google link from the Google France home page to a privacy ruling made against it. Google complied — and now the traffic seems to have slowed and sometimes crashed the CNiL web site. Our story on Marketing…



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Google Remarketing Ads Found To Violate Canadian Privacy Law; To Revamp Ad Review System By June

Google has agreed to several concessions after an investigation by Canada’s Office of the Privacy Commissioner found Google in violation of Canada’s privacy rights for the use of sensitive health history in remarketing campaigns. The investigation began last January, when a man…



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French Privacy Watchdog Fines Google €150,000

Google has been fined by the French data protection authority after it ruled that Google’s privacy policy doesn’t comply with the country’s data protection laws. Google must publish an announcement of the decision on its France homepage for two days.

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Online Privacy: We Are The Authors Of Our Own Demise

Lost in the furor over government spying on its citizens is an inconvenient truth: personal data is the new currency of the 21st century, and until we rein in our desire to spend it we can’t really stop others’ desires to spy on it. 

Paying With Our Data

While not exactly a new thought, Evgeny Morozov highlights just how far we’ve gone toward making data the new virtual currency, showcasing the “disturbing trend whereby our personal information—rather than money—becomes the chief way in which we pay for services—and soon, perhaps, everyday objects—that we use.” In our attempts to get something for nothing—be it email or banking services or any number of different online activities— we have charged willy nilly into a world where we have zero privacy … by design.

John Naughton of The Guardian grumbles that we’ve been “conned” into giving up our personal data for free services (like Google and Facebook) and that the only resolution is through political solutions. This is wishful thinking, at best, because it overlooks the biggest problem in the data privacy debate: we can’t keep private what we’re so eager to sell.

Morozov reasons:

No laws and tools will protect citizens who, inspired by the empowerment fairy tales of Silicon Valley, are rushing to become data entrepreneurs, always on the lookout for new, quicker, more profitable ways to monetise their own data – be it information about their shopping or copies of their genome. These citizens want tools for disclosing their data, not guarding it. Now that every piece of data, no matter how trivial, is also an asset in disguise, they just need to find the right buyer. Or the buyer might find them, offering to create a convenient service paid for by their data – which seems to be Google’s model with Gmail, its email service.

The problem, however, is that while the benefits to consumers are obvious—free email and storage!—the risks are not. Nor is it clear to many of us that while we may be fine using our privacy as currency to “buy” goods and services, we also implicate the people with whom we’re communicating, who may be far less interested in selling their privacy so that we can have free online services.

Overreach All Around

Back in the go-go days of 1999, then Sun CEO Scott McNealy told a group of analysts and reporters that consumer privacy issues were a “red herring,” avowing that “You have zero privacy anyway. Get over it.” To many, his words were callous. To others, they were reality.

But few likely understood then, as we’re slowly beginning to see, that privacy concerns aren’t caused by someone else. They’re caused by us.

The minute we opened the doors to advertising to pay for our online world, we didn’t merely grudgingly give up our privacy. We sold it. Willingly. And we shouldn’t therefore be surprised that governments have eagerly been supping at the honeypots we’ve eagerly enabled to entrap ourselves. 

Yes, we have the Web companies to thank for making it seem so appealing, as I’ve argued. Google, Facebook et al. are hypocritical in the extreme whenever they open their mouths to chide the U.S. government for its collection and use of data. 

But we are the ones happily selling ourselves for a few more gigabytes of storage, or a way to talk with friends. We used to pay for such things with money. Now we pay with our private details through our personal details. Governments can impose laws to try to curb this (which would also strike a hypocritical tone, since they are so eager to spy on our data as well), but until it becomes less appealing for us to sell ourselves for free online services, there’s little that any government regulation can do. We are the authors of our own stories and we make those stories available to any company or government willing to take a look.

The public has to ask itself a hard question: Do we care? Or are we happy to sell little pieces of our online selves in the name of ease and convenience?

Top image courtesy Shutterstock

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Silicon Valley’s Doublespeak On User Privacy

In a moment of unabashed hypocrisy, this week eight leading tech titans chastised the U.S. government for daring to do what each of them does on a daily basis. Namely, spy on people. Companies like Facebook and Google make billions of dollars by prying into every corner of our increasingly digital lives, then manipulating that data to convince us to do things we might not otherwise do. 

Sure, it’s all in harmless advertising fun, and the governments (of course!) have nefarious plans. But the truth is not so neat and tidy. Regardless of intentions, it’s hard to see how the Web giants could believe they could create a massive ocean of data without any governments or unscrupulous actors wanting to take a swim is equally baffling.

Spies, after all, are spies.

Shifting The Burden Of Compliance To Uncle Sam

The Web giants’ manifesto is as self-serving as it is naïve. As the Financial Times’ John Gapper points out, “[T]hey advocate nothing that would be inconvenient or difficult for themselves. On the contrary, under the heading ‘respecting the free flow of information’, they sneak in a demand that governments must not force companies to ‘locate infrastructure within a country’s borders or operate locally’.”

Why? Well, there are clearly noble reasons to resist. For one thing, once infrastructure sits within a country’s jurisdiction it becomes easier to both monitor and censor information flowing into or out of that country.

But there’s another, far less noble reason, which is that it costs money to do what the offline world has had to do for decades: comply with local regulations. I’m sure banks would love to run unfettered through the streets of Brazil. But financial regulation doesn’t allow it. It’s not surprising that countries would want to protect their citizens’ privacy as assiduously as they protect their money.

Especially given how amazingly poor Silicon Valley’s Web giants have been about protecting privacy.

Silicon Valley’s Shoddy Reputation On Privacy Controls

This is an industry that has bastardized Tim O’Reilly’s Web 2.0 principle of “architectures of participation” to be “architectures of forced participation.” Where your data defaults to public and open, not because it’s in your interest, but because it’s in the interest of Facebook’s or Google’s advertising aspirations. 

When did the web companies become freedom fighters for user privacy? As the Wall Street Journal suggests of Google, “The breadth of Google’s information gathering about Internet users rivals that of any single entity, government or corporate.” Facebook, for its part, regularly changes privacy settings, and rarely in ways that help users shutter their lives from public view.

This is, after all, the company run by the man who declared “privacy is dead.”

Regardless of their moralistic raging against the government machine, however, the reality is that the burden of privacy falls on the Web companies, not governments. Spies are spies: that’s what they do. Asking the NSA not to use Google’s treasure trove of information, for example, is a pipe dream. Nor is there a technical solution to this: better encryption won’t hinder spies. Not even quantum cryptography, as Serge Malenkovich of Kaspersky Systems argues.

Putting Data Back In Its Place

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg says all this is “really bad” for his international business. Well, there’s a solution for that: keep data in the countries where it originates. This would require additional infrastructure costs and would hinder Facebook’s ability to analyze and monetize  global user data, but it would go a long way toward minimizing the movement of user data. Given the unlikelihood of truly securing data in transit, this is a real option, if an imperfect one.

But of course, it would be inconvenient for companies who want to ask governments to respect user privacy … so that they don’t have to. Cheeky. Naive. And almost certain to fail.

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