The biggest threats to your online privacy
Social networks and behavioural advertising create a worrying precedent
By Tom Spring | PC World | Published: 14:50, 24 May 2010
From Facebook to advertisers who may be putting your online identity up for sale to the highest bidder, and to strangers who could track you across town, new ways of using technology and the Internet are making privacy issues a flash point for controversy.
"Privacy today isn't what it was a year ago," says Jeffrey Chester, director of the Center for Digital Democracy, a nonprofit group that promotes online privacy and free speech. "It wasn't long ago we were worried about advertisers planting cookies on our PC," he says. With today's trends, keeping a handle on your privacy is going to become even harder a year from now, he adds.
What follows are several emerging privacy threats.
Do social networks herald the end of privacy? Lots of former Facebook users who recently ditched their accounts in protest think so. With 450 million users, many say, Facebook is a bellwether for other social networks on user privacy.
One change involved the Instant Personalisation pilot programme, which let selected Facebook partner websites access your data and tailor content to your tastes. With Instant Personalisation activated, your Facebook information can be accessed the moment you arrive on partner sites including Microsoft's Docs.com, Pandora and Yelp. When the program launched in April, Facebook automatically activated it for all users. However, a privacy uproar forced the company to revise its policy. Instant Personalisation is now optional for users.
Facebook has suffered privacy backlashes before. In 2007 it introduced Beacon, an ad system that tracked certain actions of Facebook users on 44 partner sites so as to report those actions back to users' Facebook friends network. But many users revolted, citing privacy concerns. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg quickly apologised and made Beacon an optional feature.
"Facebook is literally turning down the Facebook privacy settings for its users," says Electronic Privacy Information Center director Marc Rotenberg. In early May, EPIC and 14 other consumer groups filed a complaint against Facebook with the Federal Trade Commission. The complaint accuses the site of following unfair and deceptive business practices, in part, for disclosing previously private details to the public.
Google Buzz (the search giant's social network) has also endured privacy issues. Buzz exposed a list of users' most frequently accessed email contacts when it launched earlier this year.
Social networks have forced users to rethink what privacy is in a world where public sharing of private lives has become commonplace, observes Jeremy Mishkin, an attorney specialising in privacy law. "The real issue is how best to assure individuals they have control of their own information," Mishkin says.
Facebook declined interviews, but issued a statement: "It's important that Facebook and other sites provide [users] with clear control over what information they want to share, when they want to share it, and with whom. We're listening to feedback and evaluating the best way to respond to concerns."
Creating a digital profile on you gets a lot easier if you are on Facebook or Google Buzz and hanging a shingle on LinkedIn. That marketers use your interest in, say, Volkswagen cars to target-market you a new Jetta may be no surprise. But will your Facebook status ever be used by a credit agency, health care provider or future employer to determine if you are a good bet?
Firms such as Rapleaf say they are working with financial institutions to run their databases of email addresses to assemble customer profiles based on information shared on social networks. Rapleaf's vice president of business development, Joel Jewitt, says it collaborates with company marketing departments, not credit approval departments, to better target financial services to banking customers.
Rapleaf is merely one of many firms, ranging from Acxiom to Unbound Technology, that tap into social networks to marry your profiles, tweets and LinkedIn information with your email address. If a company wants to know more about you, it can just hire one of these outfits.
The firms bristle at the notion that your credit card interest rates could be jacked up based on a tweet that you just got laid off. But privacy experts say that this may be a reality in coming years.
To privacy activists, online advertisers have always been too smart for their own good. Now two emerging trends in advertising have privacy groups once more complaining that Madison Avenue has gone too far.