The Big Question: Does the latest online technology pose an unacceptable threat to our privacy?
Tuesday 15 December 2009
Why are we asking this now?
The social networking site Facebook used to be essentially a walled garden where you'd share photos and information with people to whom you'd assigned "friend" status. But changes last week have led to accusations that it is encouraging us to share this information with everyone. This coincided with the expansion of Google's tracking of our web searches, and moves by all search engines to include content from social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook. On top of that there has been the release a few days ago of Google Goggles, a picture recognition service for cameraphones, which raised additional concerns. Privacy is very much on the agenda.
What are these changes?
The privacy settings of Facebook had become unwieldy and complicated. The revised version allows you to decide if you want to share each piece of information with everyone, friends of friends, only friends, or customised groups of friends. While in theory this gives everyone greater control over the things that the public can and can't see, the concern is that Facebook is nudging its less technologically-savvy users towards full disclosure.
Google's Personalised Search service was previously only available to those logged in with a Google account, but now, even if you log out of said account, searches from your computer or phone are logged with Google for 180 days. Meanwhile, the cataloguing of information generated by the hive mind of websites like Twitter and Facebook – for example regarding traffic alerts, breaking news stories and so on – has long been regarded as a crucial next step for Google, Yahoo! and Microsoft's Bing search engine. Google's Goggles development has attracted attention for its perceived ability to match photographs of people's faces with information about them online – though Google has assured users that the capability has been blocked.
Why are we urged to share so much information?
The answer is very simple: revenue. While we're seduced by the potential benefits to our social lives of keeping our friends informed about our activities, revealing our birthday, our cultural tastes or the products we're buying, this information has a cash value, as it helps to target advertising at us in order to generate income, which in turn offsets the cost of providing these services for free. Monetising online businesses is generally predicated on advertising revenue, so it's little surprise that they try to coax as much information out of us as possible.
Are many of us even aware of privacy issues?
While Google et al would contest that we willingly give information because we understand the trade-off, a very different picture was painted in a conference at the US Federal Trade Commission last week. Some researchers contended that the public's awareness of privacy issues was patchy at best. "Generally speaking, they know very, very little about what goes on online, under the screen, under the hood," said Joseph Turow, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg School for Communication, while Lorrie Faith Cranor, an associate professor of computer science at Carnegie Mellon, said that many people were even "confused about which part of a web page is advertising."
Is it really that serious?
Our details that are held by Facebook, Google and the like could be seen as incredibly benign; who cares if anyone knows that you're interested in step aerobics, or the films of Buster Keaton? But a recent study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology showed that it was possible to predict the sexual orientation of a Facebook user by merely scanning his or her list of friends – and the ability of computers to deduce information about us based on seemingly innocuous data is only likely to become more sophisticated. In addition, there have been countless cases of people who have lost jobs, friends and relationships after unwisely putting photographs and certain personal information into the public domain.
What are privacy campaigners saying?
They're unhappy, and they're making as much noise as they possibly can. The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), who have long campaigned on digital rights issues, have described some of Facebook's changes as "downright ugly", with EFF lawyer Kevin Bankston adding: "The Facebook privacy transition tool is ... a worrisome development that will likely cause a major shift in privacy level for most of Facebook's users, whether intentionally or inadvertently." Nicole Ozer, a policy director for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), described the privacy changes, somewhat tellingly, as "not so great for privacy". Google, meanwhile, have long been criticised over privacy issues – particularly in regard to their StreetView service which, while being a genuinely useful tool, has contained pictures of a number of people caught in compromising situations though Google say any such image that does slip through their filtering is promptly dealt with.
How are Facebook and Google defending themselves?
In the main, with a shrug of the shoulders. Facebook's director of global communications, Barry Schnitt, said of the recent changes: "It's not that big a change. The vast majority of users have already made this information available to everyone." But one Facebook change – which made it impossible to hide your list of friends from being globally viewable – was changed back on Friday, possibly in response to criticism. Google CEO Eric Schmidt, meanwhile, used the "If you've got nothing to hide..." defence, saying: "If you have something that you don't want anybody to know, maybe you shouldn't be doing it in the first place." Reaction to Schmidt's comments was fierce, with many bloggers referring to his furious reaction when an American news network published details of his extra-curricular activities online back in 2005.
So how do I maintain my privacy?
Facebook's new Privacy Settings page does give you greater flexibility; the key is to study the page carefully and make the decisions yourself rather than letting Facebook guide you down a certain route. If you don't want Google's Personalised Search feature, however, log out of your Google Account (if you have one), and click "Web History" in the top right, followed by "Disable customisations based on search activity". Always be aware that anything you post online could well hang around for perpetuity. And have no qualms about closing accounts if you no longer use them.
Is the situation going to get worse?
The power wielded by the big online companies is substantial; their services are incredibly popular and changes are often implemented with little or no consultation with users. Organisations such as EFF keep a close watch on their activities and attempt to hold them to account, but the best the public can do is to remain aware of the issues and make informed choices.
The furore surrounding the Google Goggles service – which currently allows you to take pictures of, say, a book cover and be given pricing and availability information in return – mainly concerns any future potential to link pictures of faces you might snap on your phone to online information about them. Google say that have no plans to incorporate facial recognition technology into Goggles.
Are developments on Facebook and Google a step too far?
*They're forced through despite the vast majority of users not understanding the implications
*They're presented as enhancements to our user experience rather than a source of revenue for the service in question
*The implications of a mine of personal data are still not understood
*They enhance the social lives of millions at a time when society feels increasingly fractured
*There are opt-outs to many of the changes, albeit sometimes hidden away
*Targeted advertising – the main reason for these changes – helps to refine and boost the online economy
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